Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 33;   August 18, 2010:

What Insubordinate Nonsubordinates Want: I

by

When you're responsible for an organizational function, and someone not reporting to you won't recognize your authority, or doesn't comply with policies you rightfully established, you have a hard time carrying out your responsibilities. Why does this happen?
Male peponapis pruinosa — one of the "squash bees."

Male peponapis pruinosa — one of the "squash bees." Flowering plants use a variety of strategies to gain the cooperation of pollinators. Their strategies are so effective that they rarely have to deal with "insubordinate nonsubordinates." For example, some plants produce two kinds of pollen — one that is involved in cross pollination and a second type that's sterile but which is more appealing to pollinators. Other plants produce a nectar laced with a narcotic to encourage the pollinator to linger at the flower, enhancing the probability of successful pollen transfer.

Both of these strategies illustrate a general principal of organizational dynamics: it's easier to stay out of trouble than it is to get out of trouble. To apply this principle to insubordinate nonsubordinates would be to recognize that keeping nonsubordinates cooperative is easier than winning their cooperation once it has been withdrawn. Keeping nonsubordinates cooperative requires an understanding of their motives for not cooperating. Photo by Jim Cane, courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service Bee Biology and Systematics Lab, reproduced by the U.S. Forest Service.

You've been given a responsibility that you can discharge effectively only with sincere cooperation from some people who don't report to you. Perhaps it's an organizational function, or developing a procedure or policy, or supporting a decision process, or any of a number of cross-functional tasks.

Typically, people cooperate, but since almost everyone is overloaded, the degree of cooperation varies. Although some people do present problems, most people mean well — they just have too much to do.

And then there are the other people.

Some are determined not to cooperate. Since they probably don't want to communicate either, we're often unsure why they don't cooperate. Sometimes we interpret noncooperation as personal. We assume that the issue is one between two people, and that we know exactly who the two people are.

If we understand the yearnings and goals of the person who chooses not to cooperate, we can respond more effectively. Here are some typical motivators or yearnings that can lead to noncooperation, emphasizing individual factors. I'll use C as the name of the person who's championing the effort, and S for the person who's subverting it.

Attention
When getting attention is S's goal, the question becomes, "Whose attention is being sought?" The true target might be someone higher in the organization than C is, or someone else whose aspirations will be indirectly subverted.
Even though C might be the most directly affected, it's wise not to assume that C is the target of the subversion. If we understand the yearnings
and goals of the person who
chooses not to cooperate, we
can respond more effectively
C might just be collateral damage.
Revenge
C might not consider revenge as S's motivator if C is unaware of the supposed past offense, or if the true target isn't C. And sometimes C just can't believe that S would engage in such petty behavior.
When trying to understand S's motivation, revenge can seem so unsettling as an explanation that C rules it out. C might even feel guilty for thinking about it. But revenge can be very tempting to S, who can often gain revenge simply by doing nothing.
Sometimes they're confused or misinformed
Often we assume, with some justification, that people act with intention and with full and accurate understanding of the situation, but it's possible that what appears to be intentional, informed noncooperation is not that. The behavior in question could be the result of confusion or misinformation. Perhaps S is truly swamped; perhaps S does indeed intend not to cooperate. But perhaps S is also merely confused; perhaps S has been misinformed. That is, if S truly understood the situation, S would cooperate eagerly.
Confusion can have multiple dimensions. Consider investigating whether S is confused. Perhaps a private conversation will be enough to sort things out.

Next time, we'll examine scenarios that involve people other than C or S.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: What Insubordinate Nonsubordinates Want: II  Next Issue

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