Friday, November 06, 2009

Cooperation vs. Competition, Conflict, Combat and Catastrophe

November 6, 2009, 6:00 a.m.

Peace as Process
(brought to you by*)

There will be time enough in future blog entries to reflect upon the impoverished UIHC "leaders and staff," with their need to shake down patients for "voluntary" contributions to help make up for a $17 million shortfall, now heading off to an Orlando resort to think about it [B.A. Morelli, "Politician questions UI Orlando trip; Officials say Disney Institute the best around," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 6, 2009, p. A1], but meanwhile, this morning . . .

President Lyndon Johnson used to have a teletype in the oval office, so he could know about the latest AP news bulletins just as soon as they were "on the wire." My modern day equivalent is an iPhone with the AP "app," and a laptop, or desktop, with instant access to the New York Times and local papers' online editions.

As it happened I used the latter yesterday afternoon and saw the story that the Times said was then only one minute old: the shooting at Ft. Hood near Killeen, not that far north of my old stomping ground in Austin. This morning it's reported as Robert D. McFadden, "Army Doctor Held in Fort Hood Rampage," New York Times, November 6, 2009, p. A1. During the night the story took up nearly one-half of each of the BBC's half-hour newscasts, and I suspect was reported by most of the world's major media.

(And speaking of Orlando, 20 minutes ago the Times reported another, possibly copycat, shooting in Orlando: Sewell Chan, "Gunman Shoots 6, Kills 1 in Orlando, Fla.," New York Times, November 6, 2009.)

But yesterday afternoon also brought me some better news that I'm going to reproduce for you in a moment.

The Times story notes that these seemingly unprovoked, mass, random killings are nothing new to America -- not that any of us needed to be informed of that fact: "The rampage recalled other mass shootings in the United States, including 13 killed at a center for immigrants in upstate New York last April, the deaths of 10 during a gunman’s rampage in Alabama in March and 32 people killed at Virginia Tech in 2007, the deadliest shooting in modern American history."

In fact, it's not the first in the Killeen area: "In 1991, Killeen was the scene of one of the worst mass killings in American history. A gunman drove his pickup truck through the window of a cafeteria, fatally shot 22 people with a handgun, then killed himself."

Look, I'm no psychiatrist -- though it appears yesterday's shooter was -- but it would seem to me that what's probably going on here is that he, what's the scientific psychiatric term? -- "snapped." So it's probably not a valid stretch to draw any "American character" conclusions from this single incident.

Still . . . we do tend to value, almost worship to the point of a mantra, the idea of "competition" -- competition on the playing field and competition in business and politics.

And while there are undoubted benefits from competition, there is also a downside, as when it leads to the conflict and verbal combat between the Democrats and Republicans in Washington. It seems pretty obvious that, at least for many of them, their single minded focus is, first, their own re-election, whatever it takes (including their taking of special interest money), and second, a "win" for their "team" (party) measured by which team has the majority, and therefore control, of the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives. And what "single minded focus" means is that if meaningful health care for the American people has to be sacrificed in the process, well, so be it. If it's necessary to handicap the domestic and international ability of the other party's president of the United States, well, that's just part of the "game."

(There is at least some speculation that an accumulation of the form of "verbal combat" we call "hate speech" may have played a role in triggering the action taken by the shooter yesterday.)

Even when the competition is in the relatively benign context of "sport," brawls occasionally break out -- regularly in hockey, occasionally in baseball -- and often among fans in the bars following the game.

Nor is it just verbal combat. We are at "war" in Afghanistan, with a vague and shifting mission (as was the case in Iraq), in a geographical area (it can't even be called "a country" in the way in which we think of that word) with challenges for which even the generals acknowledge there is no military solution. And yet we find it necessary to study for months, and debate, whether sending in even more troops will enable us to "win" (whatever that word might mean in this context). We're more comfortable with "combat," even when it is inappropriate and counterproductive, than the exploration of alternatives.

I'm not sure the case can be made that an exultation of competition leads inevitably to conflict and then to combat and finally to the kind of catastrophe that occurred at Fort Hood yesterday. But I do think there is some relationship, and I find it troubling.

We share the grief of the families of the 12 dead and 30 injured soldiers, innocent random bystanders all. And let us not forget the family and friends of the accused killer, and the other Muslims in and out of the American military who are as innocent as those who were shot, and yet may have to deal with some negative fallout from the incident.

And yet in the midst of the darkness brought on by competition, conflict, combat and catastrophe, there are those who light candles of hope as well as mourning.

There is another way.

You may be familiar with the training exercise in negotiation involving the "ugli [sic] orange." It's an effort to dramatize the difference between one's "position" and "interest" on the road to win-win solutions to conflict. There are many incarnations of the exercise. Here is one.

I don't think I can ever bring myself to believe, with Anne Frank, that "people are really good at heart." Many certainly are, but far from all, in my experience.

But what really helped me through the day yesterday was one example of the payback from "cooperation" as an alternative to competition, conflict, combat and catastrophe. It comes from, of all places, American business -- often seen as the most ruthlessly competitive institution in our society. Indeed, there are business leaders who would probably be tongue-tied if they could not draw upon sports analogies in heralding the virtues of competition.

It is an email received by a friend of mine from a Scott Westerman, a Comcast Area Vice President otherwise unknown to me, who is about to leave the position he currently occupies in order to apply for another. Here, with his permission, is the text of that email:

I got a call from a co-worker the other day. “Full disclosure,” he said. “I wanted you to know that we’re both competing for the same promotion.”

We’re friends. He said he didn’t want me to hear about it from someone else. I thought that was a classy thing to do.

Then I got a crazy idea.

“You know, both of us have strengths that could help the other during the interview process. Why don’t we prep each other so we can both can do our best?”

That sounds nuts on the surface. Why would you want to help a competitor win the job you desire? And why would anyone else who is competing with you even consider sharing his secrets?

My friend didn’t miss a beat. “That’s a terrific idea. Lets do it!”

We spent the next hour sharing nuggets from our areas of expertise, talking about how we would approach the job, sometimes debating the validity of an idea, but all the time trying to better understand the value that each of us brought to the table.

What followed was an email chain. I sent him the spreadsheets that helped me track progress, and explained sales strategies and my favorite management techniques. He sent me a blizzard of details on a section of the business where his expertise is nationally recognized.

We agreed that our joint goal was to help the company hire the best possible person for the gig and realized that, no matter how the chips fell, we would each enjoy working for the other.

I told my team members about the encounter. Some may have thought that their boss was crazy, but there was an interesting gleam in the eyes of others.

That gleam made sense to me two weeks later, when I learned that three of them were applying to succeed me in the role I was about to relinquish.

Naturally, I helped each of them prep for their first interview encounter. I know them well and shot tough questions their way, gave them feedback on their answers and tried to share the lessons I had learned in the role. It was enthralling to watch them work things through and gratifying to see that some of the ideas I had tried to teach them over our time together had taken root.

But the real surprise came later. I saw two of them heading out together at the lunch hour this week. When I asked what they were doing they said, “We’re sharing our knowledge with one another so that we can both be our best during the interview process.”

It turned out that all three of them had spontaneously agreed to help one another prepare.

Clearly, this approach only works if you’ve built a team who trust one another and are genuinely able to put the best interests of the group first. They have worked hard over time to build a unique bond. In our staff meetings, everyone pitches in to understand and assist with an individual’s challenge, even if its technically outside of their core competency. Sometimes, the best technical solutions came from our call center guy. And our marketing lead offered to off load some of the finance person’s work so that we could hit a forecast and customer communication deadline on time.

I can’t yet tell you who will get the two jobs that my buddy and I, and my three extraordinary team members are competing for. But my sense is that the likelihood of the right person being selected has gone up substantially.

Because we’re all in it together.
He got me to thinking -- about Senators John Kerry, D-Mass., Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.,trying to fashion bi-partisan meaningful support for a climate change bill; that cluster of law students I saw who were studying together rather than competing,"Paper Chase" style; the football player I saw reach down and give an opponent a hand getting up; and those corporate executives helping each other face-to-face instead of placing knives in the backs of their "competitors."

It brings to mind Robert Kennedy's line, "Some men see things as they are and say, 'Why'? I dream of things that never were and say, 'Why not'?"

Am I making too much of a single email? Maybe. But I don't think so. Because cooperation, working together for the benefit of all, is something that's possible every day in thousands of little as well as big ways. Whether it's the mission of our foreign and military policies, Comcast, health care reform, military units at Fort Hood and Afghanistan, politicians in Washington, or law students in Iowa City, we are, as Scott Westerman says, "all in it together." And the more often we behave as if we believed it the better off we all will be.
* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson
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