Monday, January 19, 2009

Hell Is Other People

To clarify: I don't mean that. This post is actually about how, despite what Jean Paul Sartre might have thought, and despite their irritating qualities, you can't really do without other people at all.

If you're not a mathematical genius, a gifted artist, or one of the few novelists whose intense introversion actually speaks to the human condition, communicating and getting along with other people is vital to achieving most anything useful.

The older you get and the more you learn, the more you realise how partial is any knowledge, how limited is any talent, how weak and qualified is 'being right'. Even where you might have been ahead of the game in having an insight or drawing a conclusion, it's not worth much unless you can communicate it to other people in a way that makes sense to them. Even then, you probably stole most of it off someone else without realising it.

This all might seem painfully obvious, but for me, last year was a learning curve in a number of ways. I suppose the lessons were there before, but I wasn't mature enough to notice them.

Theory provided small revelations. In development studies, it became clearer than ever that there was no best political or economic system that would solve everyone's problems. The wisest philosopher kings have generally failed to drag the majority along with them. Societies that have managed to achieve material prosperity and a degree of freedom for their citizens have done so by making or doing things that appeal to other people ('markets'), or organising their affairs in a way that the majority -- not just the enlightened few-- find moderately fair and reasonable ('good government').

[We leave aside the useful ability to overwhelm others by superior force, although even that requires teamwork.]

Modern theories on development also give a lot of credence to 'institutions', that mish mash of rules, conventions, and processes, and their observance by groups ranging from school boards to small claims courts to select committees. [How could I have known, when the dark mysteries of world poverty and inequality pushed me towards development studies, that the secret to progress lay in well-run meetings with an agreed agenda?]

Meanwhile, in real life I had occasion to take minor leadership roles in a couple of areas, and was a little taken aback by the experience. I have always favoured getting on with ones's own work as the best way to make a contribution, and been mildly scornful of the 'relationship management skills' that make an appearance in most job descriptions. But the year's experiences forced me to reassess this view.

On the one hand, there are always people smarter and more experienced than you are. When you have spurned the limiting dedication to a single trade, profession or discipline in favour of a cultivated dilettantism, you can be sure that in any field you operate you will always need to relate to those who have greater expertise.

On the other hand, in social and political contexts -- the only ones where I'm likely to be working in the immediate future -- things get done not by people who are 'right' but by those who can persuade others to agree with them.

At work, the project-like effort for which I received the most praise was generally seen as having been more valuable for the process and for the range of people that participated, than for its actual content or conclusions. I had to acknowledge the frightening reality that my most significant achievement was getting people to come to a meeting.

At university, I had an interesting experience of group work. In the past, I'd smugly shunned working in groups, as my instinctive revulsion at writing by committee was backed up by studies which showed that at many tasks, the best individuals consistently outperform most teams. However, development policy is if nothing else about the interaction of groups of people, so I had to acknowledge the raison d'etre.

It turned out that my background and experience made me one our group's natural leaders. I was keen that there would be no hierarchies but that open and constructive debate would trump wishy-washy consensus. However, I was a little taken aback to find that I'm not actually that good at being challenged or taking constructive criticism. Although I had lots of ideas, and some of them were good, they weren't always the best or the only ones. Yet I found I was stuck in contrarian, argumentative mode, what my father used to call 'having to have the last word'.

Worse, I rediscovered a latent tendency towards micromanagement. When tasks have to be to spread around, it doesn't matter whether you know exactly how everything should go (which as we've agreed, you probably don't); you have to trust in other people's ability to play their part in their own style. Sadly, I found that the facile corporatese edict to 'empower those around you' was sometimes a bridge too far.

When we had our anonymised written peer assessments, some adjectives that appeared in mine more than once (admittedly amidst mostly positive feedback) included 'dictatorial' and 'dominating', and I had to acknowledge they were fair.

By the end of 2008, I had to come to the conclusion that, like it or not, 'relating to other people' is a specific and valuable skill that needs to be worked at.

Having said all that, people have tendencies, and mine is that I'll generally behavely awkwardly in groups and will struggle to be a good team player. And the realisation that relatively harmonious collaboration is a desirable goal doesn't have to make it the starting point. Working my way through David S Landes' epic The Wealth and Poverty of Nations in the holidays (review to come), I found a defense of grumpy individualism.

Landes argues that the competitive desire to improve on and outdo one's contemporaries was part of what drove the scientific and industrial revolutions in Europe. Even prior to that period, the existence of many competing political entities in Europe, and the development of cities, provided individuals the option of migration, thus putting a ceiling on political tyranny and allowing the survival of new ideas. Meanwhile, the Chinese Middle Kingdom (technologically far ahead at the start of the Middle Ages) quietly ossified, as any individual genius that threatened the harmony and order of the whole was quietly tucked away or repressed.

There's affirmation there for those of us that are naturally repelled by the stifling conformity -- especially prevalent in the teaching, nursing and management professions as well as in most large organisations -- that is slyly enforced through a rhetoric of team spirit and rears its head most distastefully at 'planning days' or 'retreats'. The lesson from history is that there needs to be room to say: 'this is lame; I'm gonna make a face and opt out'.

And of course, the great irony of cooperation and teamwork is that the strongest and most cohesive team is the one that has just kicked somone else's ass.


harvestbird said...

Well into my twenties I assumed that I was able to get on well with most people and that I would breeze with ease into professional life. It was a hard time--and it took a number of years--to learn that something like the opposite was true. There's quite a difference between the good will to all people that exists in one's mind and the reality of other people (and oneself) in practice.

Simon Bidwell said...

Yes, too true. There's also the chastening realisation that if you aren't all getting on perfectly then "it's their problem, I'm good enough at what I do", is not always going to be a satisfactory response. Your skills have to be in pretty vanishingly short supply before you can be relaxed about taking that attitude.