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Volume 20, Issue 3;   January 15, 2020: Disjoint Awareness: Systematics

Disjoint Awareness: Systematics

by

Organizations use some policies and processes that can cause people in collaborations to have inaccurate understandings of what each other is doing. Performance management, politics, and resource allocation processes can all contribute to disjoint awareness.
A pumpkin pie in the midst of being divided

A pumpkin pie in the midst of being divided. Much of the content of politics is about "how we divide the pie." The best solution, if it's possible, is to find a way to increase the size of the pie. Or get more pies. Photo courtesy Pixabay

When the members of a collaboration labor under inaccurate views of what each other is doing or intending to do, trouble can arise. They might unintentionally interfere with each other, which can jeopardize the collaboration's success. I call this state of confusion or ignorance about the work or plans of colleagues disjoint awareness. In recent posts I've been exploring the causes and consequences of disjoint awareness, emphasizing the nature of the work and the attributes of the collaborators. In this post, I examine possible organizational contributions to disjoint awareness that arise from policies and processes of the organization that hosts the collaboration.

Three organizational drivers of disjoint awareness come to mind immediately: performance management, organizational politics, and resource allocation.

Performance management
The imperatives of performance management systems like those used in many modern organizations have consequences — usually unintended — that include exacerbation of disjoint awareness. Most such systems include a performance appraisal process that purports to assess each individual's performance against a set of expectations defined for that individual's role. But for roles that are largely or exclusively collaborative, performance appraisal frameworks that are designed to assess individual performance have an insidious effect. They cause the assessed individuals to focus on their own individual performance, rather than — and at times to the exclusion of — the performance of the collaboration.
The individual-oriented Organizational processes and policies
can contribute to confusion and
misunderstandings amongst the members
of collaborations, and that can jeopardize
the objectives of the collaborations
performance appraisal process gives individuals little "credit" for taking steps that mostly benefit the collaboration, and assesses significant penalties for failing to meet individualized expectations. With their attention focused on their own individual performance, members of collaborations devote too little effort to developing mutual understanding of what each other is doing or intending to do. Disjoint awareness is a direct result. In this way, the organizational system in which people find themselves influences them to make choices that tend to exacerbate disjoint awareness.
Organizational politics
Politics plays a role in exacerbating disjoint awareness. For example, some executives, managers, and project sponsors believe they weaken their political positions by letting it be known that they have plans for managing the risk of reductions in their budgets. Let's call such people Caretakers. Caretakers believe that if other decision-makers knew about their contingency plans, Caretakers' budgets would become tempting targets for deeper cuts. So Caretakers keep such plans confidential, which limits information sharing across project or departmental boundaries. That makes disjoint awareness more common and limits the effectiveness of organizational responses when cuts are actually needed.
Politics drives disjoint awareness in many other ways as well. Any situation that pits one seeker of advantage against another is at risk of being treated as a zero-sum game, in which one seeker of advantage can succeed only by depriving other seekers of the advantages they seek. Example situations include reorganizations, competition for promotion, and resource allocation (see below). When a zero-sum dynamic arises, seekers might tend to succumb to the temptation of misrepresenting to each other their work and intentions, thus exacerbating disjoint awareness.
Resource allocation
One process necessary to the success of large enterprises is monitoring their business units to ensure that appropriate levels of resources are allocated to their various efforts. To accomplish this, they gather from each project, department, or business unit data that helps them make resource allocation decisions. Thus, those responsible for these entities all have goals to meet — budgets, schedules, quotas, or other measures of effectiveness. These people are required to report periodically the data on which the relevant measures are based. The primary purpose of these reports is to enable officials to take action if a pattern develops that might indicate either trouble or opportunity.
When these reports might indicate trouble, the people who must submit the reports can be tempted to "adjust" them or delay their delivery. Adjustments and delays — actions that might be termed "impression management" — can provide time to take corrective action before anyone else discovers the problem. The temptation to engage in impression management arises because correcting the problem can avert project cancellation, business unit spin-off or liquidation, or career disaster.
Impression management can create or exacerbate disjoint awareness on the part of the recipients of the reports, because conveying a misrepresentation of the real state of affairs is the end result — indeed, the goal — of impression management activities.
In this way disjoint awareness leads the recipients of the reports to make decisions that they otherwise might not have made. For instance, if there is a need to focus the organization on successful activities, and terminate troubled activities, the entity that submitted "adjusted" data — call it "Deceptor" — might be regarded as successful, when it actually is not. Disjoint awareness then causes the organization to make an inappropriate decision regarding Deceptor's future.

These are only examples of how conventional organizational policies and processes can contribute to disjoint awareness, and thus create risks for collaborations. When devising policies and processes for an organization, consider the impact on disjoint awareness within collaborations, and devise mitigations. First in this series  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Disjoint Awareness: Bias  Next Issue

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Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
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In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.

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