When the Bad Drives Out the Good

Jan 24, 2019

By Peter Firestein

Darwin’s theory of natural selection asserts that an individual organism that is particularly suited to its environment is more likely to survive than a less fit one. It’s every individual for itself. Yet, recent research, such as that performed on ant colonies by Edward O. Wilson at Harvard,  suggests that selection can also occur at the group level. It indicates that groups with a superiority in fitness tend to survive at the expense of other groups, and a surviving group tends to be made of individuals that support it with some degree of selflessness. So, to some extent, sacrificing your interests for the group can be an individual survival trait.

If valid, this would be good news for corporate leaders, who must work continuously to see that employees identify their personal success with the success of the organization. If a predisposition toward group-oriented behavior is a factor in individual survival, it offers reason for optimism.

Such symbiosis between the organization and the individual prevails when the company is relatively free of stress, when business is good, and when competitive pressures are manageable. But because of the nonstop evolution of markets, companies generally find themselves in states of transition. At those times, the strain on the organization becomes evident in its internal life. During periods of leadership upheaval or uncertainty about the organization, managers and employees tend to see their individual interests as distinct from those of the group, and the results can be severely destructive of the company’s culture and economic health.

Consider a scenario in which two different ideas that employees hold about their personal paths to advancement go head-to-head. It is a conflict that can arise at any time, but occurs most frequently at moments of high anxiety.

One view of personal advancement holds that building competence in one’s work and finding ways to contribute to the business will find their proper rewards. People who hold this view not only do their jobs but improve and refine the domains in which they operate, offering greater support to the company as a whole. They don’t rule out for themselves the opportunity to lead the organization one day, but they believe any such recognition will be conferred on the basis of contribution. Let’s call these people the competence tribe.

Now, let’s look at a category of people who see their way forward in a different light. Members of this group view the power they manage to collect as their primary mechanism for advancement. Although they appreciate the importance of competence, the linkage between power and competence is not something they spend a lot of time thinking about. Power is its own subject to them. Let’s call these folks the power tribe.

Both tribes are necessary for any organization to thrive.

The competence tribe is the primary repository of the company’s values. Management has few strategic options without the R&D and execution capabilities it delivers, and the competence tribe can provide the crucial sustaining anchor during times of management turmoil. In 2007–2008, Siemens AG achieved record earnings while losing virtually its entire management team in a bribery scandal. An enormously competent Siemens workforce probably deserves the credit for carrying the company forward while a new management regime gained its footing.

The power tribe is also indispensable. For its members, power is its own reward, and they do not confuse it with merit. They believe that having power is identical to deserving it. Such people are generally able to make decisions without a great fear of being wrong, and sometimes even a wrong decision benefits the company more than no decision at all.

These two very different and necessary groups generally coexist. When conflict arises between them, it most often comes under difficult conditions, such as those that descend on a business when growth opportunities are diminishing, or a new competitor is on the rise. At such times, increased influence could provide a greater chance for personal survival. So, members of the power tribe begin to push the competence tribe aside.

The competence tribe takes notice when a trusted manager leaves for no apparent reason, when value created is ascribed to parts of the organization that are not its source, or when reporting structures become scrambled without discernible purpose. It’s critical that the CEO and other senior managers recognize these changes when they occur, as they mark the moment when a focus on power begins to drive competence from the organization.

Can senior managers foretell the departures of the competent before they occur? They generally can, but doing so requires a careful listening that reveals the indicators of trouble. Early warning signals include internal communications that become cloudy and negative. Such communications are generally written to hide their purposes rather than to express them. A corporate leader may notice the change when business managers’ workdays become occupied with defending internal domains, a misuse of time that forces the company deeper into its vulnerable state.

The biggest threat in power-oriented behaviors lies in the ease with which they spread. Everyone down to the receptionist can begin to see self-protection as the road to survival. The sharing of intellectual capital can grind nearly to a halt. People begin to hoard assets such as technical methodologies or lists of clients and potential clients. They value these assets not only for use in struggles for position within the company, but to take with them in securing and prospering in their next job. The likelihood that this is industry-specific information increases the chances that their next job will be with a competitor.
Reversing this process while it’s still reversible requires a management with special qualities. These qualities include the character and awareness not only to understand dissonant elements, but to do so at exactly the time it is most difficult—when management is keeping the lights on late anyway, trying to resolve the challenges that created the friction in the first place. It must learn to do both.

(From Crisis of Character, © 2009 by Peter Firestein, Union Square Press, an imprint of Sterling Publishing Co. Reprinted with permission of publisher.)

About the Author(s)

Peter Firestein counsels CEOs and senior managers of global corporations on financial communications strategy and reputation risk management.