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:
- The High Cost of Low Trust: II
- Truly paying attention to Trust at work is rare, in part, because we don't fully appreciate what distrust
really costs. Here's Part II of a little catalog of how we cope with distrust, and how we pay for it.
- Assumptions and the Johari Window: I
- The roots of both creative and destructive conflict can often be traced to differing assumptions of
the parties to the conflict. Working out these differences is a lot easier when we know what everyone's
- Nasty Questions: I
- Some of the questions we ask each other aren't intended to elicit information from the respondent. Rather,
they're poorly disguised attacks intended to harm the respondent politically, and advance the questioner's
political agenda. Here's part one a catalog of some favorite tactics.
- The True Costs of Indirectness
- Indirect communications are veiled, ambiguous, excessively diplomatic, or conveyed to people other than
the actual target. We often use indirectness to avoid confrontation or to avoid dealing with conflict.
It can be an expensive practice.
- Ending Conversations
- At times, we need to end the current conversation. It's going nowhere, or we have something important
to do, or we just don't want to deal with the other person. Here are some suggestions for ending conversations.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
- And on December 25: Disjoint Awareness
- In collaborations, awareness of how our own work might interfere with the work of others is essential. Unless our awareness of others' work — and their awareness of ours — matches reality, the collaboration's objective is at risk. Available here and by RSS on December 25.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.