Back when I was an engineer, if you hung around the cafeteria long enough, you'd hear the term "bean counter." It was a term of disparagement. Today, the Wiktionary defines it, quoting the Financial Times, as "A person, such as an accountant or financial officer, who is concerned with quantification, especially to the exclusion of other matters." They note that the term is "mildly derogatory." My own experience is that there was nothing mild about it, especially during layoffs, downsizing, or other resource squeezes. To be a bean counter, from the point of view of an engineer or other product-oriented employee, was to be a member of a pariah profession.
In more general contexts, a pariah is an outcast. (For the etymology of the term, again I refer you to the Wiktionary.) In organizations, we can define a pariah profession as an outcast profession. It might serve an important function organizationally (as financial experts certainly do), but its members are socially excluded from some circles, often solely on the basis of their professional affiliation. This exclusion applies not only to the professionals associated with the mission of that organizational function, but also to all members of that functional unit. For instance, in an enterprise in which the "Business" folks have little regard for engineers of IT (information technology), they would have similar views of the clerical and administrative employees associated with IT.
The costs of these enmities are enormous. Here are two mechanisms that affect collaborative behavior in organizational cultures that tolerate pariahdom for some of their professions.
- Distortion of contributions
- In meetings and exchanges of communications of all kinds involving pariah professionals, contributions from the pariahs can be distorted in two ways. First, the contributors might tend to structure and time their contributions so as to Disrupted collaborations involving
the pariah profession can
result in inferior outputmaximize the probability of acceptance. For example, they might threaten, temper, cajole, exaggerate, or invoke authority. Second, the recipients of contributions from pariahs tend to interpret those contributions in light of their sources. For example, they might discount, dispute, refute, or disregard those contributions.
- These distortions affect the ability of members of pariah professions to contribute the benefit of their expertise to the organization.
- Disruption of collaborations
- When output of the highest quality requires collaboration among people from several professions, any mechanism that limits or distorts contributions from members of one of those professions can degrade the output. At times, to address this problem, collaborators will reject one member of the pariah profession in favor of another whom they regard as more compatible. Unfortunately, if the role of that profession entails acting as a check or modulator of the group's decisions, such substitutions themselves can degrade the output.
- Disrupted collaborations involving the pariah profession can result in output that's inferior, but whose weaknesses lie outside the awareness of the collaborators.
Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Social Safety Margins
- As our personal workloads increase, we endure more stress and more time pressure. Inevitably, we have
less time for the social niceties that protect us from accidentally hurting each other's feelings. When
are we most at risk of incidental harm, and what can we do about it?
- Responding to Threats: II
- When an exchange between individuals, or between an individual and a group, goes wrong, threats often
are either the cause or part of the results. If we know how to deal with threats — and how to
avoid and prevent them — we can help keep communications creative and constructive.
- Impasses in Group Decision-Making: IV
- Some impasses that develop in group decision-making relate to the substance of the discussion. Some
are not substantive, but still present serious obstacles. What can we do about nonsubstantive impasses?
- Grace Under Fire: II
- When we debate at work, things sometimes turn unpleasant. Out of control, one party might maneuver the
other into losing control. If we have better tools for recognizing these tactics, we're better able
to maintain self-control. Here's Part II of such a toolkit.
- Patterns of Conflict Escalation: I
- Toxic workplace conflicts often begin as simple disagreements. Many then evolve into intensely toxic
conflict following recognizable patterns.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 16: Performance Mismanagement Systems: II
- One of the more counter-effective strategies incorporated into performance management systems is the enterprise-wide uniform quota, known as a vitality curve. Its fundamental injustice breeds cynicism, performance fraud, and toxic conflict. It produces performance assessments that are unrelated to enterprise objectives. Available here and by RSS on October 16.
- And on October 23: Power Distance and Teams
- One of the attributes of team cultures is something called power distance, which is a measure of the overall comfort people have with inequality in the distribution of power. Power distance can determine how well a team performs when executing high-risk projects. Available here and by RSS on October 23.
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