The American View: Breakfast in Utopia

Motivational speakers and leadership coaches exhort workers to pull together for the ‘common good.’ In reality, workers have pragmatic reasons to adopt tribal alliances inside their organisation. Realists must recognise and deal with this if they want to manage interdepartmental conflict.

Some things are deeply annoying regardless of context: getting a song stuck in your head. Condescending motivational speakers. Interdepartmental rivalries. Today I want to talk about all three of those subjects from a leadership perspective. Why? Because I woke up with Deep Blue Something’s 1995 hit single Breakfast at Tiffany’s stuck in my head. Ugh.

You might remember this song. It was inescapable on pop radio in the mid-nineties. Breakfast at Tiffany’s hit number one on the UK Singles charts and number five on the US Billboard Hot 100. Its official music video (available here) had 39,698,845 views when I pulled it up. It’s an innocuous pop tune with a catchy melody. I don’t know why it came bubbling up out of my long-term memory; it does, however, present an interesting angle on the strip-mined songwriter’s trope of complaining about failing relationships.

In this effort, the singer laments that he and his girlfriend are struggling with incompatibility. In an attempt to stave off a breakup, the focus character suggests (via the chorus) that they have just enough common ground to justify trying to re-build their relationship. It goes like this:

‘And I said, “What about Breakfast at Tiffany’s?”’

‘She said, “I think I remember the film.”’

‘And I said, “As I recall, we both kinda liked it,

And I said “Well, that’s the one thing we’ve got.”’

An idea or performance doesn’t have to be a masterwork to catch on in the popular consciousness. Business ideas work the same way as pop music in that respect.   

It ain’t the Beetles, but it will get stuck in your head. My apologies.

Anyway, that idea of sharing a scrap of common ground stuck with me as I waited for the kettle. I’ve had to intervene in a lot of team disputes as a leader. The problem of finding common ground between feuding groups has always been a more difficult than management self-help books, training seminars and business school classes would suggest. People are difficult.

You wouldn’t think so according to some ‘experts,’ though. I’ve endured far too many training sessions where the instructor admonished us to remember that everyone is on the same team. That is so say, when disputes arise in the workplace, everyone should set aside their personal or sectional identities and rally around what’s best for the brand. ‘We’re all part of the [company name] family!’ they say. Except … no. No, we’re not.

The academics’ smug approach rarely works in reality because people are fundamentally tribal. A workplace larger than four dozen people is simple too bit for people to consider a single entity. Instead, people instinctually default to identifying in-groups that they can identify with through close association: we’re the Dallas office, or we’re the Catering department. ‘Us’ is always close by.

Office culture is interactive and constantly evolving. No organisation can maintain a monolithic culture across multiple geographic zones. Heck, most can’t manage to have a consistent culture across different floors in the same building. Further, the people we interact with day-to-day define collective behaviour standards, language, and priorities. The idea of ‘we’ comes from the people we know; everyone else is ‘they.’ The people that – for whatever reason – oppose us.

Remember: ‘opposition’ doesn’t need to manifest as open warfare in the cubicles. Passive aggressive refusals to provide support and sniping credit for others’ work are more effective tactics for changing the local balance of power.

Business academics disagree. In a perfect world (they insist) there would be no group rivalries because every worker would recognize and accept the Greater Truth™ that everyone is an equal in the glorious pursuit of our ultimate ideal: building shareholder value! Slap that on a poster!

Then there are the visionaries who believe that collective work creates a gestalt through unity. One hundred years ago, business guru Mary Parker Follett’s advocated for work as a mechanism for ultimate fulfilment. As Professor James Hoopes wrote of Follett in False Prophets: ‘The unrealistic hopes for the spiritual unity of humankind … found a ready audience in the corporate world, always eager for an all-embracing sense of mission. Utopianism is the very stuff of management fads. Gurus always try to sound tough-minded, but in hindsight it is hard to think of one distinguished by realism.’

You can kind of see the glory of these dreams. Wouldn’t it be grand if every worker in your office cast aside their personal agendas, petty grudges, and in-group loyalties and blindly gave their all for the bottom line? Imagine the increase in productivity (and, therefore, in profits)!

B-school idealists see this as the ultimate objective behind every employee benefit, holiday fête, and framed lithograph hawking a pithy aphorism: influence those pesky and self-centred cubicle drones to get on board. Let’s all strive in perfect lock-step! We is greater than I! True fulfilment only comes from surrendering one’s self to the joy of total servitude! Why, a truly dedicated employee will surely agree with the need to reduce headcount or cut salaries to better the next quarterly earnings report.

Sounds more than a bit dystopian, doesn’t it? Smacks of Brave New World as a business plan to mitigate those dreary Dilbert characters. A utopian would say ‘no;’ they insist they just want what’s best for everyone. The more that the company as a whole succeeds, the more rewards there are for everyone that makes up the company. It’s in everyone’s best-interests, right?

‘I am overjoyed to surrender my only source of income so our magnificent CEO can afford a shiner private jet!’

To be blunt, that’s nonsense. People aren’t automatons. Companies are neither omniscient nor inherently benevolent. What’s best for ‘the company’ usually just means gluttonous profits for the owners and stockholders; trickle-down economics is a sick joke. Most people work because they must; housing and food aren’t free. Companies hold almost all the power in the relationship, leaving workers in a constant of anxiety and dread.

Just like our primitive ancestors had to band together to protect one another from wild animals, environmental dangers, and rival peoples, modern workers have to band together to protect one another from abusive superiors, mercurial market whims, and aggressive rivals. The needs of the in-group – our tribe – only extends to limit of our ability to trust one another to share common interests and standards. The ‘one thing we’ve got’ in the cubes is the need to survive; that’s all workers with little in common need to forge a mutually-beneficial tactical relationship.

The next time someone condescendingly lectures you that ‘there’s no “I” in “team,”’ point out the feral truth: ‘There most certainly is, buddy. I will gladly destroy your team because your team threatens my team.’ Human nature, survival of the aggressive, predatory capitalism, etc.

And if they still won’t knock it off with the ‘rah, rah!’ motivational rubbish, start humming the chorus of Breakfast at Tiffany’s at them. After two or three bars it’ll be stuck in their head for the rest of the day. Serves ’em right.

POC is Keil Hubert,

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.

Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

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