Corporate political infighting is one of the most fundamental challenges to organizational design. Incorporating disparate micro-hierarchies into a cohesive whole is akin to herding cats in a room full of rocking chairs. Unfortunately, micro-networks and polarization is making the job harder over time.
Defining micro-networks, macro-networks, and polarization opens the doors for opportunities. Still, a leader will have to choose to walk through those doors to discover the opportunity. Experience teaches that micro-networks exist in every business, industry, and occupation. Thus, what is applicable to call centers is directly translatable to every other business venture.
Micro-networks are the epitome of “Old Boy Networks,” the social clubs, golfing buddies, and intimate friend relationships of the modern business culture. Micro-networks often cross departments, teams, and internal work structures. Micro-networks include diverse people in roles of power, understood through work role, not specifically a job title, and often exists long after people have left an organization, a group, a specific team, etc.
Micro-networks always exhibit an unwillingness to change. The micro-network is a hybrid hierarchy established as a virus to the standard organizational order. By possessing a separate system, confusion will abound, problems arise, and the micro-network will be the root cause, even if the analysis points elsewhere. Micro-networks are the lazy manager’s approach to problems, using the same people with the same connections to accomplish work in the same manner.
The problem of micro-networks is prevalent, especially in call centers; many times, the call center leadership promotes micro-networking to accomplish the tasks and goals of the organization. People will always form teams of like-minded individuals geared towards protecting themselves, which leads to entrenched bureaucracies and hierarchies, which sums the problems and defines the micro-network perfectly.
For example, a department in a call center for a globe-spanning organization is not run by the team leaders, supervisors, directors, etc. but by a small group of employees who are knowledgeable of a legacy data-entry system. These employees have formed such a strangle-hold upon this department that until the legacy system is retired, the company is held hostage. While working with this organization, it was shocking to see how pernicious and long-reaching this micro-network had become, how those in the micro-network parroted the beliefs and opinions of the micro-network core leaders, and how fast micro-network jobs could be completed, but the regular business could not be concluded.
Academic research calls micro-networks a host of names from mini-networks, to relationship-based networks, to value-added networks to professional social networks, always the intransigence towards change, and the core group manipulating a host of powerful people are the keys to identifying the micro-network. Important to note that these networks originate when a person needs some legitimate business completed and finds a like-minded person who can accomplish what is desired. The micro-network methods of subverting system control to perform work generally start harmlessly enough as a “hook-up.” Get enough “hook-ups” occurring, and a micro-network will form.
Macro-networks may contain micro-networks or members of micro-networks; the difference is the purpose of the network, what defines membership in the macro-network, and the work of that macro-network. A macro-network does not fear change as a micro-network does; which, is essential to understanding the macro-network. Macro-networks span across multiple subsystems, cultures, identities, behaviors, etc. A macro-network overlays and contains a vast majority of people.
For example, Catholicism could be considered the largest macro-network in human history. Catholicism has breed hundreds of other macro-networks in religion, child adoption, hospitals, food banks, and much more. No single Catholic is the same and generally has ties to another macro- and micro-networks. Each will interpret the tenets of Catholicism differently and apply the principles differently, but with some degree of sameness as well. Hence, the final aspect of a macro-network, it can replicate other self-sustaining macro-networks. In contrast, a micro-network cannot replicate or be self-sustaining.
Polarization is behavior multiplied as two or more sharply contrasting opinions, beliefs, biases, or behaviors draw like-minded people. Behavior is attitude, bias, emotion, and individual choice, stemming from the axiom, “As a man thinketh, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7). Thus, thoughts become attitudes, the attitudes feed into behaviors, and the entire organization begins to suffer according to the individual’s choices and consequences. Polarization is an extension of tribalism and is observed as people cluster into competing groups in a zero-sum game, where negotiation and compromise are perceived as a betrayal.
Polarization is not a micro-network but may originate within a micro-network that grew. A micro-network does not develop into a macro-network but into a tribe that is polarized. Polarization is all about antagonism, the demonization of other people outside the specific tribe, conformity inside the tribe along with greater demands to force conformity outside the tribe, lies, and deception are tactics to win new members to the tribe, and violence is seen as natural to combat others not in the tribe.
Consider the following example, changes to The US Senate’s rules regarding filibustering. While in the minority party, the leaders in the current majority party decried long and loud how changing the rules of the filibuster was unconstitutional, wrong, or out of line. Wait a year or two, watch the political party from the minority become the majority, and now changing the filibuster rules is considered acceptable, needed, and a step in the right direction to move the country forward. The rules of the filibuster did not change; the political aspects of the filibuster did not change; only the people in power changed and then the rules of the filibuster changed.
Polarization begets violence; consider the separation between the union and non-union employees. Go anywhere in the world where labor unions exist, and the violence between the union and non-union employees is always prevalent. Now, some may say, violence does not happen here; how do you know? Violence is not just hitting another person or threatening to shoot that person. Violence includes deprivation and neglect. Case in point, a stack of work is delivered to an employee; if that employee prioritizes the work according to personal benefit, violence is being perpetrated against those not in favor of that worker. Micro-networks breed this type of violence into the workplace as normal and acceptable behavior!
A recent call center experience occurred where, when a homosexual manager discovered a person was uncomfortable; he would violate the personal space of a victim as a method of exerting power. It did not matter if the victim had generally good or bad opinions of homosexuality; simply being uncomfortable was enough to “invite” the intimidation. The business never claimed this was violent or a contributing factor in higher churn rates for that manager’s team, but ask the victims, and they absolutely considered the actions as violent, oppressive, and a type of bullying behavior. The victims of this manager were all men, and all shared the same aversion to merely having their space invaded by a known and militant homosexual, who used his sexual choices to protect himself from claims of sexual harassment. The people who accepted his space invasions gained promotions, and other preferential treatments. Those not accepting his invasions were eventually either asked to leave or quit without notice.
What about the female who actively looks for reasons to be offended and claim sexual harassment; the law supports the female claims, and the business from the preponderance of caution will generally side with the female making allegations. The victims were bullied into silence. This call center female filed more sexual harassment claims than any other person in its multi-state organization. The victims were shocked to hear they had been accused of sexual harassment, and the word spread that men should stay away from this person. The productivity loss, employee churn rates, and morale cost estimates were staggering, but the female’s behavior was accepted. The call center was so polarized over this issue that threats, bullying, and intimidation against male employees caused stress-related workplace injuries.
Understanding begets opportunities; this is a simple axiom with tremendous potential for improving environments of polarization, reducing the power of micro-networks, and increasing the productivity of macro-networks. The power of polarization is only diminished when people start working together, seeing each other as valuable assets of the same organization. Hence, the first opportunity to bridging polarization is getting people to work together, which takes leadership, and it requires selecting people for projects outside the normal same ten people (STP). Reducing the power of micro-networks also requires leadership and selecting people for projects outside the STP. The following is not an all-inclusive list but a basic launch point:
- Intergroup contact and the power of working together; one of the greatest work projects witnessed included people from a wide range of positions; they were set firm deadlines, objective standards of performing work, and a leader who desired them to work together. Sweat equity paid off in large dividends; when the leader allowed them space to work out their differences and room to work, the group was successful.
- Communication must change! While most will conclude that the speaker must select their words differently to accommodate a polarized audience full of micro-network competing members, this perception is invalid! It is not the speaker who must change, but the listener. The listener must move from not listening through active listening to reflective listening. Reflective listening is a personal commitment to listen until mutual understanding has been achieved. Reflective listening requires asking and answering questions in a manner that produces dialogue.
- Refuse to honor groups and instead honor individuals. Honest praise is better for the brain than cash gifts. Fake praise is more damaging to the individual than a bullet, a bludgeon, or a whipping. Leaders must create the time to honor individual efforts honestly, openly, and often if they are to change the culture where polarization and micro-networks exist. Issuing honest praise is as simple as writing “Thank You for…” on a sticky note. The point is to give truthful, genuine, and sincere praise!
- Behaviors are not people; behaviors belong to a person who needs praise. Choose the focus carefully! A leader can spend all day on negativity and never achieve a team of people working together. Or, a leader can choose to spend the day recognizing efforts to improve and positivity and make the team into greatness. Choose carefully, choose consistently, and choose to exemplify that which you want to see in others.
Be the example! Exemplify reflective listening by investing time in listening. Exemplify the need to bridge between polarized points by bridging not between ideas and opinions, but people. Exemplify the need to eradicate micro-networks by insisting upon not using micro-networks when work is needed to be accomplished. Remember, those STP will burn out, choose other people, and help them discover how to perform work. Remember, at the end of the day, the solutions and opportunities all reside in the people. A micro-network is people who found a faster way of conducting company business with like-minded individuals. The root cause for micro-networks stems from broken processes and procedures that govern work. Welding that micro-network back into the macro-network will require getting the people working together and a different work process that eradicates the need for a micro-network. Early prevention of micro-networks prevents polarization!
© Copyright 2020 – M. Dave Salisbury
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