It would be easy to read last week’s article and be left with a sense of awareness, but also frustration. There are seemingly levels in everything. They operate everywhere. Nothing is obvious, and everything has the potential for hidden meaning and motive.
And you would not be wrong. There are an infinite number of levels, in which a nuanced conversation is happening all around us. We implicitly acknowledge this when we speak in “code,” which is in itself is designed to create an “us” and a “them” in our interactions. We create language that deliberately restricts meaning to a select few, while being impenetrable to anyone not within the circle.
This is true for “dog whistle” political messages, designed to be benign to the general electorate while being specifically relevant to tuned-in factions. It is true for conversations where we circuitously talk around the subject, never actually acknowledging it directly (from euphemistically coining new terms for laying off people to failing to acknowledge the elephant in the room). It is true for consultants and organizational pundits that insist on creating new terms for concepts and capabilities that have existed for decades (looking at you, Six Sigma. And agile. And… don’t get me started).
So is there any structure to these levels? Are there ways that we can make sense of them, and try to practically assess and anticipate them? What are the things to be aware of, and what are the things to look for?
We’ve already explored one fundamental structure of levels, which is related to how we process rules. Like decision making, our approach to processing rules isn’t wholly rational and logical. This is actually a useful reality, in that it is a significant part of what creates the space for agency. The way we process rules occurs on three levels, and provides three levels of possible interpretation. First, there is the rule as formally defined. Secondly, there is how we interpret and understand the rule. Finally, there is how we choose to enact (or ignore) the rule in real life.
Rules in this context vary from the formal to the social. We have laws, policies and guidelines; we also have social conventions and we have norms, which will vary based on group membership. In the context of personal agency, each of these levels offers some room for freedom, creativity and exploration. There may be a corporate policy, for example, that requires computer support requests to go through a defined system. We may interpret this as applying in normal circumstances, but able to be waived in the context of an emergency. And we may find ourselves actually behaving in a way in which we bypass the formal queue, and contact support resources directly on an “emergency basis” in most instances.
Depending upon the circumstance, reinterpretation and adaptation of rules may be effective, or it may be annoying. We may rely on our ability to find creative room for movement, and yet chafe when others do the same to us. Reciprocity is a reality, and having our own hypocrisy pointed out is often humbling. While there will be times when circumvention is a wholly reasonable response, we should consider when it is appropriate and when we are overstepping. At the same time, it is important to recognize that these levels of interpretation are not our exclusive domain; everyone else we deal with has the same opportunities and freedoms, and will engage in them in the manner that suits their immediate purpose and motives.
As well as this rule structure operating personally, it also exists organizationally. Each organization has its own stated reality of policy, process and guidelines that defines how work is to be done and the behaviours to which people are expected to conform. These vary once again from the formality of policy to the implicit expectations of social interactions and even dress codes (and anyone that has been in the orbit of a private school will know just how creatively dress codes can be re-interpreted). Just because a policy is written down, however, doesn’t mean that it is actually followed. There is often a wide gulf between what is espoused as written expectation and what is practiced in reality (to the extent that people within the organization can actually be completely oblivious to what the formal expectation is). Once again, there can also be a gap between the expectation of “how things get done here,” and how those are enacted by different departments, groups and teams.
While the interpretation of levels thus far has largely focussed on how normal, functional behaviours are supposed to be enacted, a different interpretation of levels shows up in situations of conflict. More particularly, conflict itself occurs on multiple levels. A significant and obvious basis of conflict emerges over process, and how the rules are being followed, interpreted, bent or ignored. An easy illustration of this is when the information technology group gets annoyed that their support process gets bypassed. Or when finance bristles at end-runs around proper expense authorization protocols. And particularly when purchasing requirements are completely ignored when contracting for just about anything.
Under the surface of conflict based on rule interpretation is conflict based on role interpretation. Purchasing, for example, may see themselves—and likely are supposed to be—the gatekeepers of all procurement. Ostensibly, this is to promote objectivity, manage risk and ensure proper contracting conventions are adhered to and in place. Virtually everyone else sees themselves as the customer in any particular transaction, and therefore assumes that they should be entitled to approach, manage and coordinate purchases to make sure that their requirements get met, timelines are managed and simple transactions don’t get bogged down in unnecessary red tape.
Role conflict, in turn, often conceals friction on a deeper, more emotional level. While purchasing may promote their involvement to manage risk, peeling back the professed logic of their intervention may reveal that they like being a choke-point in all purchasing because it gives them a sense of purpose, meaning and value. Being a central source through which all purchasing decisions flow offers a sense of power. The act of bypassing their role doesn’t just risk inappropriate contracting practices; it undermines a sense of identity and self-worth.
There is one further dimension to explore that offers yet another insight of levels. This dimension emerges when we anchor on and expand our exploration of conflict that occurs on an emotional level. There is a great deal of range in this dimension, but a lot of it gets hidden from sight.
Think about a situation, for example, where you’ve experienced emotional conflict at work. You might have felt you were disrespected, ignored, undermined, dismissed or misunderstood. For most of us, we don’t need to go back too far in our memory banks to think of a number of possible examples.
Once you’ve got an example in mind, reflect on how you responded to it. Think about the conversation that occurred, and how you attempted to shift understanding or intent. Barring a complete meltdown—which happens, we’re all human, after all—there is a surprisingly narrow range of responses and strategies that we rely upon. The reason for this is that there are typically a limited number of ways that we have to counter situations of emotional conflict that are deemed acceptable. We rarely talk about the emotional conflict directly—or feel that we are allowed to—so we shift our approach to find a more rational way to explain or resolve our disagreement.
When we unpack emotional conflict, there are essentially two different levels we can explore: those tied to hopes and aspirations, and those tied to fears and anxieties. Both can be in play, and both can be deemed undiscussable—by ourselves, or by those around us. What makes these undiscussable is largely the same forces that get in the way of decision making: a belief that we are supposed to be logical and rational, and that the messy reality of human cognitive biases and emotional responses are not just unacceptable, but inappropriate to proper functioning in a business context.
The reason that we don’t acknowledge and address anxieties and fears is perhaps the easiest perspective to address. All of us have things that we are concerned about. Raising concerns in a workplace context, however, is often viewed as being negative or critical. Poltically, there are those who might be defensive—or downright hostile—if problems or issues are identified, particularly if they are in a position of accountability for the problem and have some power within the organization. To avoid giving offence or receiving retribution, we learn to keep our mouths shut. The consequence is that we add to the set of social conventions of “how things get done here” additional expectations about “what doesn’t get discussed here.”
Hopes and aspirations are a slightly different challenge to unpack. On the face of it, you would think they would be perfectly reasonable considerations to raise. Who doesn’t like optimism and positive thinking? Yet the reality is often that these are often as off limits as our hopes and fears. Part of what contributes to this is ownership: our own personal hopes and fears belong to us; they aren’t necessarily organizational in nature, and may not be supported by where the organization is going or what the organization does. There is also the potential fear of ridicule, that what we aspire to gets mocked rather than being supported. Organizational culture may also reinforce undiscussability; like crabs in a bucket, those who aspire to something greater get dragged back down. After all, misery loves company.
All of these levels serve to help understand and define the elephant in the room (whether personal pachyderm or collective comprehension). There are different dimensions that are in play in defining the layers of perception, discussion and emotional response that inhabit our day-to-day lives, both personally and professionally. Being aware of the levels and how they work is an essential part of observing, evaluating and making sense of organizational dynamics. Clarity of structure helps to make meaning of our own individual situations. Knowing the levels at play also helps to define strategies to engage with others, whether making it possible to discuss issues that have been previously been suppressed or at least figuring out our own personal strategies to respond and survive.
It goes without saying that people are messy and complex. Part of this complexity is the number of levels that define what gets discussed, what gets distorted and what gets suppressed. Knowing that this is true, and understanding the structures that may be in play, provide essential insights for each of us as we navigate our relationships and organizations. More importantly, they pave the way to bringing unspoken truths to the surface and making them a little more discussable.