Playing Nice: Work and Cooperation in the Age of Competition

Whatever you think (or don’t) of their politics (or their videos), not many years ago the Dixie Chicks wrote a smart little song which nicely captures the dark side of workplaces everywhere: “Not Ready to Make Nice.” While the drum beat of teamwork persists, and collaboration pervades the new tech tools of this competitive age, businesses, business columns, and lawyers’ workloads are full of Dixie Chick rage. Individual workers or entire organizations see work pirated, efforts distorted, performance undermined, contracts breached, and liability misplaced. The rage distracts teams, departments and entire ventures. This is not just true in the sick organization but in the healthy company left collateral damage by sector–or adjacent sector–risk and failure. It’s a familiar tune of the wider world as regardless of laws, treaties, codes, compliance and diplomatic pretense, tech theft, corrupt practices and contractual farces have driven the rhythm of business to a cynical beat. Brushed off, told to work around it, get over it, workers and companies do translate the brush off as “shut up and sing.” They sue. Or resort to the same or similar class of guerrilla tactics. Is this any way to run a business? You bet it’s not.

Hypercompetitiveness breeds fisticuffs, arrogance breeds contempt, and frustration breeds anger. With the global meltdown, where do you stand and what can you do?

Look first to your own organization: There has been a myth that only those who play nice get ahead, and yet we see every day that people who get ahead do not play nice. The nice managers you know will shock you by admitting they set up teams to fail or trick disfavored workers into irretrievable blunders. Pleasant people down the hall will take someone else’s work; underlings or the nice are bullied into surrendering credit. Part of playing nice has been “making nice,” letting deficiencies slide, overlooking offenses and “getting over it.” Yet the hurt feel the Dixie rage and may or may not back down.

Practically, playing nice is politically applied, favoring the insider, excluding the outsider, whether based on intrinsic value or alternative agendas. Maybe the one not ready to make nice has a point. The seriously hurt do not readily “get over it.” Do not discount the value of their hurt.

Use the downturn to set new standards. Level the playing field. Overcome the office wars. Lay down guidelines for collaboration. Hear the resentments; consider the injustices; don’t penalize the victims. Settle the scores equitably and teach values to those who have learned only the value of manipulation and competent legal advice. Times have gotten out of hand when you are counseled not to commend anyone’s work in writing but only confirm fact of employment by name (and serial number). Get back to communal values and forget the myth that the best always finish first. Darwinian competition will eventually kill the team. It encourages a culture of One and Self. Even Jack Welch says his culture went too far….Many victims later.

Global meltdown has a way of leveling the playing field while also tempting the desperate to further corruption. Look to your offices and to your practices. Be aware. Don’t sit on the signs of fraud or creeping deception. Reaffirm standards. Don’t back workers into cutting corners or tricking out numbers in fear of irrational quotas or punitive layoffs. Confirm the value of quality, responsiveness, people and customers. Look outside to your suppliers and retailers. Confirm not only the value of honest relationships but the value of their role in proving your own quality and integrity.

Whatever the laws, the procedures of compliance, the ethics of the company, and the politics of the workplace, anywhere, people abroad do not play nice. Time, distance, cultural difference and geographic immunity mute even the drum beat of teamwork in a joint venture. Far less do standards, ethics, codes and friendship matter across fungible suppliers, retailers and market outlets. Values and fairness are harder to enforce. The global meltdown exacerbates the effects and losses encourage governmental protection of its own. Corruption feels justified as emerging markets reverse or relationships shift power. Trade wars loom. Rage, cynicism and litigiousness rise in response.

The RIAA protects pop music more vigorously and enlists government enforcement than other industries secure their own value. Complacency, lethargy and permissive defeat had lower costs in a boom economy. Get active, enlist the ITC and USTR, participate in STOP. Not only enforce FCPA but educate your employees, agents, and partners in the practices and consequences. Exercise your power to force a level playing field in whatever corner you can. Don’t make nice to avoid playing nice and don’t make nice to avoid the discussions of playing nice.

© Copyright 2009. Sigrid Caroline Schroder. LLC. All rights reserved.