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Life Without Gravity

A blog chronicling the up's and down's, trials and tribulations, fear and happiness of moving your life from the expected 9-to-5 job to a life of consulting. While it is a big and often scary decision, it is a time of discovery, rejuvenation and introspection that will help you remember who you are and who you were supposed to be. It's a wonderful journey.

Outside In:

Internal Competition Thwarts

Creativity and Innovation


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Last week I again partnered with Academic Impressions to publish an article, 5 Ways You Can Bridge the Communications/Development Chasm. In writing, I began to realize how much I had lived that environment of internal competition, particularly as resources became scarce and demand increased. In the article, I write about the loss of shared perspective. No matter the work place, we are all working to make the organization successful because in its success, we remain gainfully employed and have the satisfaction of contributing to something that is thriving. It is easier to see that as a consultant looking through the organization than it is to cope with it from within.

In consulting, I see and feel tensions that are puzzling among my own clients and their colleagues. I have seen some joking that internal competition is healthy and mistaken projections that it creates innovation. Yet, I can see clearly that teams that are inspired, nurtured, allowed to fail and rewarded for risks are more innovative. They bring to bear the different mindsets, experiences, wisdom and topical understanding that one individual or department cannot bring to problem solving. The tensions are real, and I am seeing institutions not reaching their full potential because of historical resentments and lack of respect among colleagues. How do you tackle addressing challenges that are related to culture? It’s not easy, but some initial steps I have seen effective include:

Recognize the problem that you are creating or that you are tolerating.

Internal competition seems to have created walls that feel impenetrable. I have been asked several times to design plans that work around departments that are deemed uncooperative. I have seen offices stop forward progress on good ideas by throwing road blocks and stalling on their own contributions. I have seen two leaders not speak to each other at all or productively for years. And, unfortunately, I have seen the organization condone these behaviors. Not with expressed support for them, but with uncomfortable avoidance.

The sum of the parts needs to create a greater whole, correct? It seems that internal competition often starts at the top. Seeing that your behavior is not helping the institution grow is the most important first step. Instead of complaining and wringing hands, leaders need to assess the reasons they are not working well together and create pathways to clear the past and open collaboration. Cultures do not change unless leaders facilitate and live the change that needs to happen.

Check your power structure at the door.

So much of our employee selves rest in our feeling about status. I see the greatest conflicts between leaders and offices that don’t respect their colleagues. They feel their work is harder, or more important, or better in quality or quantity. Meetings have back-handed innuendos that trigger silence or resentment. Egos emerge in condescending tones or ill-advised quips. Sometimes I enter a room of strangers and immediately can translate the hierarchy just from the way they sit – who is closest to the power leader or who sits at the end of the table and never speaks. Many of these dynamics are unconscious, but when you live and work mindfully and pay attention in the moment, you recognize all your colleagues and treat them more respectfully.

Until the culture understands that the individualistic successes are not advancing the institution as a whole, self-centered approaches may continue. It takes a strong leader to ensure that his/her staff sees the value of all, not only on the team, but in the teams that surround them. At the beginning of change, reward systems that recognize teamwork help. Management reinforcement, positive affirmation and public recognition of productive relationships are small, but mighty changes that start to change the culture. Leadership messages that emphasize collaboration reinforce the need to work together for the sake of the whole institution.

Be clear on priorities and goals.

Too often I enter a project and immediately sense that the compass is not set. Disagreements or differing opinions are voiced, but I sometimes feel that I, as an outsider looking in, am the only one noticing that the team is not talking to and with each other, but at their fellow staff. When I dig deeper, I often find that each has a different interpretation of what is most important. Priorities are misunderstood, misinterpreted or frankly, ignored. The most successful universities I am working with have presidents who are direct in stating what needs to be achieved. AND, s/he has a team that communicates those goals, creates metrics for success around them, and develops yearly plans that advance those objectives.

Unfortunately, sometimes presidents are less clear about what they are advancing. They send messages that everything is important or they vaguely state the already-recognizable goals of higher education, including: attract high quality students; ensure the best trained faculty; build large endowments; enhance national reputation. Goals that live that high in altitude create avenues for all to interpret them differently and to start to move forward in many different directions. Often with good intent, the lack of clarity on goals can actually enhance the competitive divide internally.

Easier said than done, leaders need to state, restate, communicate and say again, the goals that will drive the organization and help guide the ways that the culture will work together and not against those goals. There seems to be a real need for leadership training in this area, particularly in the non-corporate worlds where bottom line returns appear less pressing.

I have been blessed with excellent relationships with the Development (fund-raising) and alumni leaders in my last several positions. I felt a strong connection, a joined force of talent bringing all their talent and other resources to move forward shared goals. It not only felt good, it was fun. We knew we were successful because we shared the goals and accountability together. I have also felt in competition with sister offices. Conjecture, misunderstandings, hostility, jealousy – negative emotions overpowered any desires my team felt about moving the organization forward. When we cared more about our own achievements, we lost sight of the success of all. There are times and places where we thrive on competition, but within the institution, all thrive with collaboration.