The Pyramid of Agendas
An Original Work
David G. Yurth
Holladay, Utah 2004
All Rights Reserved
As we deal with other people in any organizational environment, sooner or later we will have to deal with conflict. Conflict is not inherently bad. In fact, conflict simply stems from differing points of view. Since no two people view the world exactly the same way, disagreement is quite normal. In fact, anyone who agrees with you all of the time is probably telling you what you want to hear rather than what s/he actually believes or feels.
The reason conflict in the workplace has received such bad press is partly because of the emotional aspects that accompany it. When there is conflict it means that there is strong disagreement between two or more individuals. The conflict is usually related to interests or ideas that are personally meaningful to either one or both of the parties involved.
Setting the stage for developing a conflict management plan can pose some very real obstacles. Apart from the justification issues of time and expense (both of which can be successfully defended), philosophical resistance to the development and implementation of a conflict management process often manifests itself in concerns over the potentially unrealistic expectations that implementation of such a process will result in everyone agreeing about everything all the time.
In fact, decisions made or directions followed by any group are best accomplished when all are in acceptance of the wisdom which gave rise to the proposed action. Decisions that best reflect the thinking of all team members are those that are the most effective and long lasting because of each member’s individual investment. While consensus is desired, this is not consensus in the sense that there is a unanimous vote which may not represent everyone’s first priorities. Nor does it call for consensus from the standpoint of a majority vote, as team members in the minority may get something they do not want at all. Neither does it mean consensus in the sense that everyone is totally satisfied. Instead, what is called for in effective change initiatives is consensus acceptable enough that all members can support it; and that no member actively opposes it (Peters, Waterman 1985).[i]
The use of an effective conflict management strategy to enrich virtual business relationships will have this consensus philosophy – in whole or in part – underpinning its use. Remembering that a lack of disagreement does not necessarily signal consensus, the team leader who actively manages conflict will encourage all work place team members to work together to ensure that all sides of an issue are equitably considered (Eisenhardt 1997).[ii] In spite of enormous variations of cultural styles in resolving or managing conflict, as a practical matter there is general agreement that most individuals and groups value their own input when conflict is thwarting (or threatening to undo) some action in which there is strong individual or group investment. Building on the valued input of individuals is a key to success in negotiations and decision making in any organizational setting.
It is part of our thesis that the non-working behaviors used by team members to get what they want – which is the essence of conflict – are manifestations of hidden, personal, undeclared agendas which are not being satisfied or are in conflict with the overriding agendas mandated by the organization. A key element of our recommended strategy for resolving conflict is to utilize the tools, resources, techniques and systems currently available to discover what the underlying agendas of both the organization and the participants are. When we know what is being asked for, the path leading to resolution of conflicts can be directed towards fulfillment of unexpressed expectations and agendas. This is the essence of conflict resolution.
THE ROLE OF AGENDAS IN CONFLICT MANAGEMENT
Figure 1 illustrates the stratified categories representing the public and hidden agendas which are believed to give rise to interpersonal conflicts in organizations.
Figure 1 – The Pyramid of Agendas
Unmanaged conflict can lead to violence and insubordination. The key to managing conflict effectively is to learn the skills necessary to become a good conflict manager. By definition, this means learning to unearth personal, hidden, undeclared agendas and becoming adept at facilitating their alignment with organizational agendas and objectives.
When conflict arises in the context of any change initiative, effective conflict management requires that attention be given to at least the following basic considerations:
* Creation of Safety [reduction of risk] * Unequivocal articulation and clear understanding of the related agendas * Skillful facilitation, accompanied by genuine mutual trust and respect * Impeccable personal integrity
Conflict resolution, in the conventional sense, and more particularly in the context of organizational applications, is predicated on the notion that to the extent the interests and needs of the individual can be brought into alignment with those of the organization, both will benefit by the relationship (Schettler, 2002).[iii] Organizational effectiveness is gauged in terms of productivity, employee turnover, performance reports and a variety of other measurement criteria. The measurement tools used by organizations to quantify effectiveness are constructed on the basis of the prevalent, conventional wisdom which assumes (1) that there is a one-to-one relationship between the organization’s effectiveness and the productivity of its human resources and (2) that linear-sequential processes can be used to predict the organization’s future and facilitate the attitudes, behaviors, values and practices which fit the organization’s requirements. There is compelling evidence suggesting that both these notions fall short of the mark (Wheatley, 2001).[iv]
Creating Safety: Conflict resolution is an interactive process which presumes that team members who are in conflict can be made safe enough with each other and the conflict resolution process to act in ways which are civil, respectful and authentic. The reason this component is essential is that the conflict management process is inductive – that is, the skills, insights, behaviors, attitudes and practices which are thought to be desirable for the organization are induced in the company’s employees as a function of the organization’s stratified training and enculturation processes.
The exercises and techniques designed to manage conflict often reflect the ulterior motives of the organization as their basis. That is, they are intended to modify personal values and attitudes [level 3] and are therefore the most difficult and least linear to manage. In order for the process to work effectively, both the leader/facilitator and team members must feel safe, both with the process and with each other. In operative terms this means that authentic responses regarding the personal interests, needs, expectations and values of those in conflict must be elicited by the team leader or facilitator in a way which is not judgmental or prejudicial.
Teams fail to reach their goals when they do not have a proper context or effective guidance. Top-level leadership and functional managers must be able to effectively sponsor; charter, or otherwise involve themselves with teams. These champions have to understand, negotiate, and contract their roles up front, and they must articulate what they will do to support the outcome of a given team. We want them to create context for the issue, and then let go and allow the team to go about its work.(The Agile Environment: A Case For Teams, 2001)[v]
This is the information set which makes it possible for team leaders to determine where alignment exists or needs to be facilitated (Stowell, 1988).[vi] Team members who provide authentic responses take the risk that by being candid, honest and forthright, they may be punished, ostracized, profiled or terminated. That is, by becoming visible and transparent, they risk being viewed as without worth, of little value, dangerous, incomplete or expendable (Geber, 1987).[vii] Accordingly, any conflict resolution process which seeks to facilitate genuine alignment is compelled to operate with civility, forbearance and accommodation. Without this component, team leaders/facilitators cannot reasonably expect to obtain truthful responses from their team members.
Related Agendas: In the context of conflict management as a leadership skill set, please refer to an abstract concept illustrated by Figure 1, called “The Pyramid of Agendas.” In this context, agendas are defined as
“the motive aggregation of the wants, needs, desires and expectations which impel human behaviors and the practices evinced by human institutions”.[viii]
Human interaction is seldom characterized by the voluntary sharing or expression of the real agendas which drive our undertakings. In part, this is the primary reason negotiations focus on positions rather than interests. Why this is so and what role this plays in the conflict resolution process deserves at least a cursory analysis. For the purposes of illustration, five (5) strata of agendas can be identified in an organizational context (Yurth, 2003).
* Level 1: The public organizational agenda(s), as represented by the organization’s published vision and mission statements. * Level 2: The hidden organizational agenda(s), as represented by the organization’s hidden, undeclared, masked or deliberately distorted practices, particularly when those practices are apposite to the agendas represented by the public agenda. * Level 3: The employee’s public agenda(s), as represented by their job description, title, publicly declared role or published classification. * Level 4: The employee’s hidden, private, personal agenda(s), as represented by the wants, needs, desires and/or expectations held by the employee which are not recognized, identified, disclosed, declared, owned or shared with others by the employee. * Level 5: The employee’s deep core agenda(s), as represented by the employee’s personal sense of their rasion d’etre.
To the extent that an organization’s public and hidden agendas are congruent, it is more likely that a team leader or facilitator can clearly articulate what the organization needs, wants and/or expects from its team members. Interactions between leaders and team members can be conducted with optimal authenticity when the agendas of both the organization/team and the team members are clearly articulated and genuinely transparent. Until this standard can be achieved, however, it is unlikely that any meaningful mitigation of underlying conflicts can be imposed “top down.”
With this information set as a baseline, questions related to the wants, needs, interests, expectations, values, attitudes and skills of team members can then be explored in an atmosphere of minimal risk and optimal personal discovery. When team members are facilitated to work together in a context of candor and frankness, the risk of conflict will be minimized from the outset. When team leaders attempt to enter into a coaching relationship with their team members, and when the process can be conducted in an atmosphere of openness and authenticity, the inductive dynamics which characterize the coaching process can operate relatively uninhibited.
[i] Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr., In Search of Excellence. New York:
[ii] Kathleen M. Eisenhardt, Jean L. Kahwajy, and L.J.Bourgeois III, “How Management Teams Can Have a Good Fight,” Harvard Business Review, July-August, 1997, p. 84.
[iii] Building Strength, Joel Schettler; Training; June 2002; pg. 54.
[iv] Wheatley, M., Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World Revised, Berrett-Koehler Pub; 1st Edition (January 15, 2001). ISBN: 1576751198
[v] The Agile Environment: A Case For Teams, M. McCrackin,Thoughtspace – Strategies for Sustained Performance; www.thoughtspaceinc.com/pubs/agile6.html.
[vi] Coaching: A commitment to leadership <content.xanedu.com/CCP2/xcp134/2_142985_3143.pdf?ID=0.1893310546875& IE=x.pdf> ; S.J. Stowell; Training and Development; American Society for Training and Development (ASTD); (42:6); 1988; 34-38; (5)
[vii] I’m OK, you’re Theory X <coursepacks.xanedu.com/perl/dview?DON=1200454&PACKID=181318&HLVL=210 98&TYPE=CoursePack> ; Geber, Beverly; Training; Jan 1987; pg. 99; (2 pgs)
[viii] This is my working definition. It varies from the conventional definition which defines the term as simply “.a list of things to be done, especially in the context of a meeting.”