The natural and unmanaged formation of groups and sub-cultures in companies, as in broader society, is a well-established human behaviour, leading to many social and intellectual benefits. The diffusion and generation of information and ideas with other people, and connecting those that share an interest or view.
Despite the many benefits that come with group emergence, there can be issues raised both true in generality, or particular to the business arena, when these extend into the workplace without deeper understanding. The question is how to carefully protect against the sometimes negative consequences of the way human beings form groupings, while not getting in the way of the many positives. This is important both in terms of the happiness and fulfillment of individuals lives and careers, and good working outcomes for businesses.
These questions arise at all levels of an organisation, whether it defines itself as a flat or intrinsically hierarchical structure, but are particularly apparent in flat organisations due to the removal of a strong, formal structure. These patterns also transcend any functional, task or command group structures that may be prescribed or have formed more organically.
Why is it bad?
Restricted information flow
With islands of people, comes borders between information. The social barrier that can sometimes be created between groups acts as a constriction to the interleaving flow of information, data, ideas, and opinions.
Exclusion of expertise
Groups can consciously and subconsciously act to exclude broader expertise in decision making. In this exclusion, the likelihood of drawing in available and relevant expertise severely decreases. In addition, the mitigating influence of opposing or critical viewpoints are removed, and a decision made internal to the group can become elevated beyond criticism from both within and without.
In any social grouping, self-reinforcement amongst the group is often a key element of its underlying behaviour. This is often a highly desirable outcome, if not the reason and purpose of the groups formation itself. However, carried into the wrong contexts it can also be damaging. A form of confirmation bias can build within teams that are overly defined by introspection, behaviours and patterns develop that can degrade relations with other members of the organisation. There is also a degradation of the groups performance itself, as all the previously mentioned factors of exclusion become exacerbated.
Negative norm reinforcement
Narrow groupings solidify on narrow viewpoints and mutually reinforce the belief in the validity of those views. The behaviours and attitudes of the group strengthen around the current norms, and increasingly exclude deviation, criticism, or evolution away from that norm. This again combines to create additional boundaries between those external to the group, but also implicitly imposes conformity, and negative consequences are felt by those that are not part of that norm, even when not consciously applied.
Distortion of informational value
Many of us carry an subconscious predisposition that leads us to inherently feel that private things are more important, more valuable, than public things. That the fewer people know about something, the more important the people are who do. This distorts the true value of information, while also conflating that value with individuals or the group as a whole. This can lead to personality issues and emotional responses being drivers of the acceptance and trust in practices, approaches and judgements rather than the true value they possess.
What are the signs?
Private communication channels
Private channels are created for discussions and decision-making where there is no strong need for secrecy. This can happen by an active group decision, by placing a shroud of privacy on a currently public channel, or by the gradual increase in the use of a private channel as its purpose is extended beyond its original intention.
As a concrete example of a private communication channel, this involves the restriction of meetings to specific members, not only as participants, but also applied to allowed observers. While there are some reasonable justifications in specific cases, many that appear to be, such as avoiding large committee decisions, keeping discussions focussed, and so on, are only superficially so. These can usually be mitigated in other ways, or are in fact outweighed by the positive impacts of openness.
Stratification and Fragmentation
A clear sign that group formation is having an impact is quite simply the existence of many isolated groups, talking and organising themselves in distinct ways. Without the existence of good information flow, the outcome can be very fragmented, with the loss of coherent strategy, vision and cooperation. Links and relationships that help to bind disparate groups together are missing, and so they those groups begin to stratify, with ad-hoc hierarchies and power structures developing.
A Cultural Shift
Openness by default
By defaulting to behaviours that are open, inclusive, and welcoming to all individuals and groups, regardless of their direct involvement, we set out a position that reflects a deep cultural set of beliefs. External to those defined groups, people looking in see an inviting environment that they want to engage with, and internally those groups see the outside world as people to exchange ideas with and enthuse about what they do.
From this perspective, making all discussions and meetings public and open to all makes sense. Although there are tangible reasons that can make this occasionally and temporarily unworkable, in practice there is never a strong enough collection of exceptions that make any groups activities default private a truly evidenced outcome. Over the long term, any problems or discomfort caused by operating in public are outweighed by the benefits provided by openness.
As private discussions become an opt-in position, rather than a de-facto standard, instead of having to justify opening up our practices, we now reflect on why we think we require enclosing them.
In any social structure there can always be found exceptions to the rule, reasons why some group or groups should be excluded from a discussion. While this may be true in some situations, it is essential to the success of openness to be aware, and analyse these cases whenever they appear. Does the discussion really have to be private, or is it motivated by reasons of social awkwardness or embarrassment? How narrow does the privacy need to be applied, how temporary can the situation be made?
On many occasions, even when the act of privacy is truly justified, this is often a sign of an underlying problem, either organisationally, or at an individual level. The first outcome of having a situation arise that requires privacy, should be to create a plan to identify and remove the key driver that created that requirement.
Organisational emotional maturity
In making our discussions and opinions public, we also need to migrate the organisation away from more traditional responses to those discussions. In the course of heated debates, or periods of overwork or stress, many things can be either poorly worded or not-necessarily represent the true beliefs of an individual. Any organisation that implements openness must accept this as an inherent part of this process, educating staff on how to avoid those kind of situations, and moving away from a punishment orientated attitude to these events, and towards a mature resolution.
What are the benefits?
No challenges are hidden
Any problems, technical, cultural, etc are surfaced purely by their existence. Nothing is left to develop quietly under the surface, it’s always visible and available to be tackled directly.
No successes are hidden
On the flip-side of the coin, no teams achievements are always destined to pass-by unnoticed. By operating in the open, successes can be seen by everyone as they happen.
Conflicts of interest are reduced
By having opinions and actions visible outside of any of their respective groups, we ensure that any conflicts are brought to the fore quickly and therefore can be resolved more immediately. Left to progress in isolation, often viewpoints or work has progresses beyond the point where is easily reconcilable.
Collaboration and learning outside of our particular speciality and daily work load also stimulates new ideas and thinking, helping us to approach problems in new ways, and create insightful solutions to the challenges we see.
Well-being is improved
Finally, and most importantly, existing in an open environment that respects and encourages opinions and involvement brings with it a corresponding increase in peoples wellbeing. Conflict and secrecy are known factors in escalating stress. By reducing or removing them altogether, we actively reduce those levels.