Messy Cooperation or Isolated Purity?

Reading the announcement of Senator Gregg’s embarrassing withdrawal from consideration for Secretary of Commerce, I began thinking about the temptation to maintain one’s purity by staying away from people one doesn’t always agree with. In the case of the would-be Secretary of Commerce the issue might have simply been Republican pressure to close ranks around unthinking obstructionism (the old fashioned way to avoid responsibility), or perhaps it was just that he discovered a principle “in his heart” that he just didn’t realize he had when he lobbied for the post. But the tendency to avoid working with people who might not share your ideas extends far beyond Washington.

The college years are supposed to be a time when you have uncommon and unparalleled opportunities to engage with talented people who have ideas and experiences very different from your own. On campus we should be hearing different points of view, meeting people from different walks of life, participating in vigorous debate, while we also work together to get things done, to build community, or simply to have a good time. These are some of the challenges and joys of being at a university.

But there is also a tendency at many schools to find people who have made the same choices as you, who want what you want, and then to spend all your time deepening your connections to them. Isolated micro-communities spring up, and they also contribute to one’s education and life. There is a cost to this, though, because it means a diminished capacity for real teamwork — a compromised ability to work together while acknowledging difference.

As Wesleyan moves into the heart of the semester, we all — students, faculty and staff – experience many demands on our time and energies. Will we continue to work together in messy cooperation to get things done, or will we drift to like-minded groups that take comfort in isolated pockets of agreement rather than general effectiveness?

Seeing some of the economic and educational challenges that lie ahead, I count on us remaining a variegated community that is home for many differences while being still capable of uniting behind common purposes. To meet these challenges we will need the diversity and the commonality.

[tags] Secretary of Commerce, Washington, teamwork, diversity, commonality [/tags]

7 thoughts on “Messy Cooperation or Isolated Purity?”

  1. Interesting thoughts, but whatever the needs for cooperation and teamwork in the university environment, it’s worse in the real world of business. Most compete their entire careers against their peers for promotion or now more often, as we know, avoiding the inevitable next “layoffs”.

    As a result of that dymamic, to say nothing of the efforts of managers to foster this behavior through blunt quantitative metrics like “billable hours” or “revenues” and the once lauded “six sigma” HR techniques of Jack Welch (firing the lowest 10% of “producers” each year), I don’t see much cooperation.

    But a funny thing started happening when “work”, particularly intellectual work product, started getting counted by the bean counters. It became hollowed out, when people stopped judging among peers for their qualitative accomplishments (hard to measure) and started judging on these one dimensional superficial metrics: like “billable hours” or the even more ubiquitous measure of “face time”, those people who seemed to live at the office in rebuke to those who wanted to work the “minimum” 40 hours, “nine to five” routine of a salaryman/woman.

    And the least funny thing is in this hollowing out, the work itself became different. No one wanted to cooperate, they were all competitors. Cooperation became a way for someone to steal credit for your work, or backstab you in office politics. No one at work was your friend; all potential enemies.

    And worst of all, beyond the loss traditional camaraderie of work life, was that the faux workerbees took a risk averse “see no evil” approach to their work. They weren’t trying to accomplish great things to get credit. No, they were smart enough to know that’s risky, better to take as little responsibility as possible, don’t rock the boat, and above all, don’t do anything for which you can be blamed, which is to say, don’t do much of anything. Stay off the radar screen and keep your head low.

    In the end, in my profession (law) we went from offering clients unvarnished objective advice (risky) to endless flattery and salesmanship. The primary directive is “don’t lose the client” which often means not dealing with a problem or issue until it’s too late (e.g., imagine a physician who couldn’t tell you you had a life-threatening disease until its onset made it obvious to the patient, to avoid “shooting the messenger”).

    Like a lot of things in this economy, we need to change the paradigm of “work”, in favor of the worker and his/her quality of life. It doesn’t seem very promising right now. I don’t know what the answers are here, but some of the malady I’ve written about is obviously reflected in the antiquated business school gospel of the 80s’ such as the crude brute force HR metrics involved, the notion that productivity of each intellectual workers is limitless and can be grown quarter after quarter with no increases in salaries, and consequently the expectation is that salaried workers need to work at least 60 hours a week in sweatshop conditions to “make their numbers”.

    And to stop with the hagiographic writing that makes every CEO totally responsible for the efforts of thousands of talented people (and paid in the same manner). God, it reminds me of some ancient civilizations praying to their Pharohs to bring sun, rain, corn and livestock. (I know we humans have an innate need to do this, but really after 25 centuries or so of civilization we should be getting a better handle on this if we want to have a sustainable advanced industrial economy).

  2. Diversity of opinion ans internal debate is healthy…but at the end of the day, don’t you need and expect your direct reports to speak with one voice when a decision is made?
    Maybe an issue surfaced (like taking the census of of the Department of Commerce into the Executive Branch) after he “lobbied” for the position that he could not support and would force him to compromise a “core” belief.
    how much true diversity of political opinion at a any private liberal arts colleges is a subject for another blog.

  3. Let’s remember there are only two reasons anyone is employed or contracted. Either you have needed knowledge or, are willing to provide a service that the “boss” can’t or won’t do themselves. That’s it.

    If your output doesn’t fit the business plan and need (as noted above), you will be scuttled like an outmoded typewriter. If your stamina can’t keep up, you are history. Ever wonder why there are usually only one or two people with gray hair in major media companies? They survived somehow, through whatever tactics (combat, usually) were needed, until their time comes.

    But that’s the way business works.

    You need to be better than the competition or you are toast, damn humanity. The central question is how to achieve balance–create opportunities and an atmosphere that asks for performance and rewards it. Somehow, lessons of the early 20th century sweat shops ought to be remembered. It was only after a revolt against the barbarian operations of that era, that the rights of workers emerged as a rallying point.

    The current national dynamic demands cooperation and teamwork even when one’s immediate interests are not enhanced. But the realities imposed by a society grown isolated by ear buds, the new personal media, segregated politicized news options and insular thinking, are daunting. As I wonder how the global malaise can be beaten, thoughts have wandered to the forgotten concept of shared labor in pursuit of a goal (think Amish barn-raising and what a community can do if it really wants something).

    Is it possible to ask each of us to do something every day to help another solve just one piece of a larger challenge? Oh yes, that would be in the public interest, no pay. I believe that we need to think about these kinds of communal energies being employed, even as we await the germination of government stimulus seeds.

    Henry Kavett P ‘09

  4. Jack,

    I must say that your response left me with a great deal to think about, both in regards to how the higher education community is viewed, but also in regards to how hard metrics come to effect work product. First, I have to take issue with your description of the University as anything other than the real world. Though I’ll grant this point for students, Wesleyan’s current fiscal crunch is having very real world effects on its hundreds of employees, with salaries and wages being frozen, facilities maintenance being restrained, and positions being replaced only when critically necessary. While I’ve generally been pleased by the administration’s response to the drop in our endowment value, its response will not be without its repercussions.

    On your second point, about the rise of adversarial business, I think this point is of interest in the rise of blogging. Which this blog is basically sporadic and doesn’t seem to dominate President Roth’s scholarly or administrative work, I do wonder whether intellectuals turned 24/7 bloggers is a net positive for the scholarly community. Surely the loneliness of the computer and the blog chatter going back and forth across the internet is not the right environment for cooperative, diverse work to take place. This is an example of where at least one of those HR metrics you refer to seems to fail.

    If Brad DeLong(Prof. of Economics at UC Berkeley) is churning out blog posts, he’s probably producing much more material and reaching a wider audience than he ever could with peer-reviewed economics papers. Further, because of the nature of bloggers frequently referring to each other, he’s probably getting cited more often as well. But surely this work is not of the same value as the sort of longer-term research he might otherwise engage in. The threat of this kind of balkanized, agressively contentious intellectual production should surely remind all of us of the importance of cooperation.

    Finally, as a question to President Roth: Who do you think should have been more embarrassed, Gregg for accepting the position before turning it down, or Obama for picking a nominee that couldn’t stomach administration policies?

  5. Henry and Bradley…thanks for your thoughts.

    Bradley: I didn’t mean to suggest that Wesleyan or any other university wasn’t the “real world”, or that there isn’t potentially the same issue with “metrics” of peer evaluation. I was more responding to the parent post of President Roth’s musing about issues with diversity and collaboration in the university environment.

    I was just trying to say, perhaps poorly, that from the perspective of the business environment and typical workplace in IP in the year 2009, at the culmination and collapse of the Reaganist “free market” idolatry, the whole idea of collaborating with one’s professional peers seems utopian and quaint. Something from a vanished world I remember earlier in my career, perhaps.

    As to blogging vs. directing energies solely to traditional scholarship I would encourage university professors to blog and put their ideas out in the “marketplace of ideas” generally. We need their advice. We need more people like, say Paul Krugman to share their insights with the general public.

    As we face this daunting worldwide economic retrenchment, I often find myself wondering: who is *our* John Manyard Keynes? Which economists are stepping up to the plate to develop programs which can create progress? What better time for people to want to hear from academics who can offer hope and direction. Where will the business schools fit in? How do we get away from the destructive myths of the “lone ranger” C-class executives and reform the capitalist system? Who is today’s Peter Drucker?

  6. Good points. Terrible lead in.

    Obama lost more senior appointees (confirmed or not) in 4 weeks than Clinton lost in 4 years. He has attacked the media, “the market,” and of course anyone who thought he was serious about not having an administration staffed by corrupt lobbyists, or that the public would have 5 days to read any important legislation. Even his most intellectual incurious supporters must be having some second thoughts.

    If you believe Gregg’s withdrawal was primarily due to “a tendency to avoid working with people who might not share your ideas” or just “unthinking obstructionism” maybe its you who needs to try mixing beyond “like-minded groups that take comfort in isolated pockets of agreement.”

  7. What came to mind here was the role of college presidents in this age? It certainly seems to be along the lines of “… a tendency … to find people who have made the same choices as you, who want what you want, and then to spend all your time deepening your connections to them.” as regards fund-raising, promotion and the like. It used to be that college presidents set the standard for using their ivory tower platforms to speak out about an issue they believed in, something they felt the world at large needed to hear regardless of the fallout among the trustees, donors, and other like-minded souls. To wit:
    A. Bartlett Giamatti, president of Yale University in 1981, accused the Moral Majority and other conservative groups of a “radical assault” on the nation’s political values.
    “A self-proclaimed Moral Majority and its satellite of client groups, cunning in the use of a native blend of old intimidation and new technology, threaten the values” of the nation, Mr. Giamatti told Yale’s entering freshman class of 1985. He called the organization “angry at change, rigid in the application of chauvinistic slogans, absolutistic in morality.”

    Haven’t heard anything like that lately.

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