Conflicting interests

The role of an organization development consultant sometimes seems on a par with that of a marriage guidance counselor. Both are brought in sometimes as mediators, sometimes as advisors, sometimes as therapists (although this last requires specialist training), to help parties resolve issues that they cannot handle alone.

In organizational development work the interests center on power and politics – at an organizational, business unit, team and/or individual level. Tussles between head office and field offices are common, in departmental mergers or downsizing managers fight to protect their turf, personality clashes occur between individuals that get in the way of a smooth work flow, and so on.

In her book Territorial Games, Annette Simmons discusses ten games people play to protect their organizational territory and there's a fun self-assessment included in the book. (In one workshop where I was using this one of the participants remarked that when he came to the workshop he only knew one game to play and by the end he'd learned nine others!)

The classic Games People Play by Eric Berne discusses the various games less from a organizational perspective and more from a transactional analysis view – but this book still makes useful reading for the OD practitioner, as does I'm OK, You're OK by Thomas Harris, and The New Peoplemaking by Virginia Satir.

Once OD consultants are aware of the range of games people play and why they are played it is helpful to look at why they play them. At a very simplistic level the games are often about protecting sources of power. Gareth Morgan in Images of Organization (mentioned in yesterday's post) discusses various sources of power that people fight over including:

• Formal authority
• Control of scarce resources
• Use of organizational structure, rules and regulations
• Control of decision processes
• Control of knowledge and information
• Control of boundaries
• Ability to cope with uncertainty
• Control of technology
• Interpersonal alliances, networks and control of informal organization
• Control of counter organizations
• Symbolism and the management of meaning
• Gender and the management of gender relations
• Structural factors that affect the stage of action
• The power one already has (personal power)
• 'Ownership' of a contract vehicle
• Reputation or credibility

These sources of power provide organizational members with a variety of means for enhancing their interests and resolving or perpetuating organizational conflict. Knowing what type of power people hold and why and how they are interested in fighting to retain are useful questions for OD consultants to get answers to before they leap in to trying to help resolve any conflicts.

The website/organization Beyond Intractability is bylined A Free Knowledge Base on Constructive Approaches to Destructive Conflict, and is an excellent source of information and tools for dealing with organizational conflict.

It includes a detailed description of BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreemen) which is an helpful approach to conflict resolution – one that OD consultants would do well to have in their toolkits as they work with the power plays and politics that dog all organizations.

Additionally short programs on various aspects of conflict (some offering credits through the University of Colorado) are available through their website. Conflict 101 for example focuses on things everybody should know about conflict: why it occurs, how it can be beneficial, and how to manage it so that it is beneficial and not harmful. Its intended audience is college students (both advanced undergraduates and graduate students), people who deal with conflict a lot in their jobs (teachers, managers, health care providers, etc.), parents who want to do a better job of dealing with their kids or spouses, or anyone who wants a better understanding of ways of dealing with conflict.