We Need a Better Language for Organizational Relationships

Uit : Harvard Business Review, 16 september 2011
Door: Andrew Campbell

One of the prime reasons for organizational dysfunction is that our vocabulary for describing relationships inside organizations is limited. We use vague terms like “line” and “dotted-line” or “team” and expect managers to be able to function effectively.

But just as we need to know whether the evening we are about to spend is with our mother-in-law or a university buddy, managers inside organizations need to know whether the meeting they are about to have with a manufacturing expert is with an internal supplier, a team member, or a lobbyist for lean manufacturing.

Of course some understanding of these different relationships is already there, at least in a tacit way. But we often see confusion, misunderstanding, and crossed purposes. If we had a richer, more explicit language for describing relationship, confusion would reduce and productivity increase. Let me make some suggestions:

There appear to be seven main relationship types. The first is boss/subordinate, which can be further subdivided into hands-on boss, where the rules of the game are “check with me before you do anything unusual”; and the hands-off boss, where the rule is “do what you think is best to achieve your objectives. Only seek my permission beforehand in these specified circumstances.” The key to good boss/subordinate relationships is clarity about the rule and acceptance of the rule by both sides.

The second relationship is customer/supplier. The onus is on the supplier to keep the customer happy or risk losing the relationship. As long as both the customer and the supplier have the power to terminate the relationship and work with other parties, the relationship normally works well.

Another relationship is policy/operator. One unit, such as finance or HR, sets policy, often in consultation with operating units. Once the policy is set, the operating units must execute it. The policy unit should check that the operating units are following the policy, and is expected to complain about transgressions and even report them to higher authority. Again, so long as higher authority gives the policy unit appropriate support, the relationship normally works well. There may be tensions, but effectiveness and efficiency are normally not at risk.

A further common relationship is lobby/operator. One unit is charged with persuading operating units to give special attention to some issue they might not be managing well. The unit may be lobbying for lean manufacturing techniques or special attention to a global customer. The feature of this relationship is that the lobbying unit has limited power: the operating unit can take the advice or leave it. So long as higher authority is clear that the power lies with the operating unit, the relationship normally works well. Lobby units are often frustrated, but their frustration does not normally undermine performance.

The fifth and most common relationship is the managed team. Here participants need to work closely together to achieve a joint outcome. Their actions are interdependent. They need to reach joint decisions about many aspects of their work, and they will be cautious about taking unilateral action without checking with the team to make sure there are no negative side effects. So long as the team has a leader, someone with the authority to resolve disputes, ensure coordinated action, and remove disruptive or incompetent members, the relationship works well. Team members may dislike each other. They may disagree about important issues. But a good leader can still deliver good performance.

One increasingly common type of team member is the business partner. This is an individual who reports to a group function but is allocated as the function’s member of a business team. This relationship is awkward. The individual is a member of the business team, but the rest of the team know that the individual’s loyalty is more likely with the group function. Unless the individual has high integrity and openly discusses conflicts between the two roles, mistrust and dissatisfaction are common.

A final type of relationship is no-walk-away collaboration. All of the above relationships are a form of collaboration. When managers have been asked to act like a team but there is no clear leader with the power to resolve conflicts, the managers are part of a no-walk-away collaboration. When business units have been asked to work together as supplier and customer, but neither has the power to terminate the relationship; they too are part of a no-walk-away collaboration.

If we arm our managers with this richer, explicit vocabulary, they will understand each other better, be better able to judge how to behave, and be better at creating smoother and more productive organizational relationships.

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Over 2bcoaching, Trudy van den Berg

TRUDY ZEGT: "Als coach heb ik de leukste baan die er voor mij is omdat ik ervan geniet om anderen en mezelf te ondersteunen op hun ontwikkel-pad. Ieder heeft zijn eigen waarheid en die probeer ik te begrijpen en respecteren voor zover ik dat kan. Daarbij is respect van alle voors en tegens zoals die er op verschillende momenten zijn voor mij essentieel. Uit eigen ervaring weet ik hoe lastig keuzes maken kan zijn."
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