Improving Face-to-Face Relationships
The challenges of management in the 1980s are enormous, but they are fairly easy to identify. The great difficulties that we face lie not in deciding what our goals should be, but in determining how to achieve them. Our problems in this area are problems of implementation: how can we reach goals that are often perfectly clear but seemingly impossible to attain.
Several explanations of these problems readily come to mind:
- Large systems have become too complex to be understood.
- “Bureaucracy” makes it impossible to get anything done.
- Intergroup hostility paralyzes all constructive effort.
- Power politics undermine and subvert rational action.
- Irrationality and human resistance to change defeat even the wisest programs.
All of these explanations are true, but they are also incomplete. Sometimes they are used only as excuses for failure rather than as constructive analyses of our management problems. On the other hand, we have learned something about implementation in the last forty years or so, and what we have learned takes us back to one fundamental principle: societies, organizations, and families are human groups, and the face-to-face relationships among the members of these groups are a basic element of any social action. Whatever else we need in the way of systems, procedures, and mechanisms, the process of social action always starts with face-to-face relationships among people. Face-to-face relationships can be thought of as the glue that holds organizations together, and such relationships are the links in the implementation chain. Therefore, we should take a fresh look at these relationships to see if we can articulate some of the skills which can make them more constructive, and thus enable us to move toward solving some of the pressing problems of the 1980s.
The Elements of Face-to-Face Relationships
What does it take to build, maintain, improve, and, if need be, repair face-to-face relationships? I would like to discuss nine different elements, which are all closely interrelated yet distinct in important ways. These elements reflect motives and values, perceptual skills, and behavioral skills:
- Self-insight and a sense of one’s own identity;
- Cross-cultural sensitivity — the ability to decipher other people’s values;
- Cultural/moral humility — the ability to see one’s own values as not necessarily better or worse than another’s values;
- A proactive problem-solving orientation — the conviction that interpersonal and cross-cultural problems can be solved;
- Personal flexibility — the ability to adopt different responses and approaches as needed by situational contingencies;
- Negotiation skills — the ability to explore differences creatively, to locate some common ground, and to solve the problem;
- Interpersonal and cross-cultural tact — the ability to solve problems with people without insulting them, demeaning them, or destroying their “face”;
- Repair strategies and skills — the ability to resurrect, to revitalize, and to rebuild damaged or broken face-to-face relation ships;
I would like to discuss each of these elements in turn, putting most of the attention on those which have been insufficiently attended to in prior analyses and on those which are especially relevant to repair strategies.
One can hardly work out common goals with others if one does not know where one’s own values and goals lie. Leaders and managers especially must know where they are going, and they must be able to articulate their own goals. Parents and spouses must make a valiant effort to lift to the surface what is often left implicit — their own life goals and targets — so that there can be genuine negotiation among family members in the different life stages.
Self-insight is a competence — the ability to see oneself accurately and to evaluate oneself fairly. Through feedback from others and through systematic self-study, we can improve our ability to see ourselves. As we increase in self-insight, we lay the foundations for self-acceptance, which is to some extent, a prerequisite for some of the other skills to be discussed.
It goes without saying that we cannot offer leadership if we do not have perspective on ourselves and on others, and we cannot gain such perspective if we continue to be ethnocentric — to notice and appreciate only our own culture and values. Cross-cultural issues are not limited to the dramatic differences which can be identified in how different countries operate. Many of the most harmful cases of cultural misunderstanding occur right under our noses — with our spouses, friends, children, and subordinates — because norms, values, and behavioral codes vary widely within any country. American managers often tell tales of woe of trying to transfer people from the deep South to Manhattan, or from an urban center to a rural plant site.
A costly misunderstanding occurred in the small town where we used to spend our summers. The local wood-turning mill employed both men and women from the community, and the pay scales had developed historically around the status system in the town. A new manager who had experience in a progressive urban mill noticed that some of the skilled women operators were grossly underpaid in relation to their male counterparts. He set about to rationalize the pay structure to reflect actual skill levels. This action led to wives bringing home bigger paychecks, which neither they nor their husbands could accept in terms of the status system in the town. The dissatisfaction and turmoil that resulted from upsetting the social order was completely unanticipated by this manager.
Deciphering values, motives, aspirations, and basic assumptions across occupational and social class lines is particularly difficult. It is hard for the son of a successful middle-class businessman to understand the values and career aspirations of the son of an immigrant or an unskilled worker. It is hard for the general manager to understand the values and career aspirations of the technically oriented person and vice versa. It is hard for people in the different functional areas of a business to decipher each other’s values and aspirations.1
Cultural Differences between Countries
When we go to countries where a different language is being spoken and where the culture is obviously different, we do wake up to the need to sharpen our deciphering skills. But even then we have a strong tendency to look for similarities and to rationalize that “people are people” and “business is business” no matter where it is conducted. My own tendency to ignore differences was brought home to me during a visit to Australia, which is superficially and historically similar to the U.S. It took me quite a while to discover that while Australians (like Americans) are achievement oriented, they also have the “tall poppy syndrome”: one must not stand out above the crowd; one must accomplish things without seeming to work too hard at them; and one must not take too much personal credit for one’s accomplishments. The son of a friend of mine told us how, after waiting all day for the perfect wave, he had finally succeeded in having a brilliant ride on his surfboard. When he hit the beach, he told his watching friends — as he knew he had to — “Boy that was a lucky one.”
I kept hearing how complacent and security oriented the Australians were even when I was dealing with what seemed to be some pretty tough, aggressive managers. What one’s true motives are and what is culturally acceptable as a legitimate explanation of one’s motives are, of course, not necessarily the same. In comparing America and Australia, one sees a paradoxical reversal. In Australia, people claim to be mostly security oriented, though companies admitted they had many aggressive, ambitious, power-seeking managers working for them. In the U.S., the popular image is that most people are ambitious and want to climb right to the top of the organization — though I encounter a growing number of allegedly ambitious managers who admit in private that they are not motivated to continue the “rat race,” that they would like early retirement, or that they are considering another career altogether. Both public images reflect cultural norms, yet both are to some degree a misrepresentation of the actual state of affairs. The public selves we wear — the way we are supposed to present ourselves to others — is a strongly ingrained set of cultural values in its own right, and tact prevents us from puncturing the illusions which cultures teach us to project.
Erving Goffman has written articulately about what he calls “face work” — the behavior of people in a social situation which is designed to help everyone maintain the self which they choose to project in that particular situation.2 Selves are forever constructed, and the audience for any given performance is culturally bound to uphold as much as possible the identities which the actors claim. At the minimum, we nod and say “uh huh” when someone is talking to us, or we try to laugh politely at a joke that is not really funny, or we ignore embarrassing incidents. If our boss tells us through his actions or demeanor that he believes himself to be very competent in handling a given meeting, we rarely challenge this claim even though we may privately believe that he will totally mismanage it. The skill in this situation is our ability to compensate for his incompetence or to repair what damage may have been done. But we do not destroy his face.
The Reciprocity of Relationships
One of the most interesting features of the cultural norms of face-to-face interactions is their symmetric, reciprocal, exchange nature. We sometimes get into difficulty because we do not know how to complete an interaction. When someone in a strange country offers you an object in his house because you have admired it, are you supposed to take it and reciprocate at some future time when the visitor is in your home, or is it appropriate to refuse? The whole question of when and how to say yes or no is fraught with difficulty if we are talking across cultures or subcultures. And, as many businessmen have found out, how to interpret a yes or a no is even more difficult.
The ability to detect the subtleties of how others perceive situations and of what the values of others are requires both formal training and practical experience. Learning a new language would seem to be a prerequisite since so much of every culture is encoded into the language. Many people pride themselves on their extensive travel, even making lists of how many countries they have been in, without ever encountering or deciphering any of the cultures of those countries; they do not learn the languages and therefore miss the important nuances of what is going on. On the other hand, I have heard repeatedly from multinational companies that one of the best prescriptions for success in an overseas assignment is to take time to learn the local language.
Beyond self-insight and the ability to understand others, we need something which we might call cultural/moral humility. Can we not only sense the values of other people but, more importantly, positively appreciate them? Can we see our own culture and values only as different, not necessarily as better? Our tendency to think of things as “funny” or “odd” is a good diagnostic here. I have often been shown or told about funny things people do in other countries. An American visitor to the mainland of China found it very amusing that some Chinese farmers were so proud of owning tractors which were, in fact, useless; the tractors could not turn on the tight terraces and they did not have attachable plows to pull. The fact that a Chinese farmer did not even know the function of the pin to which the plow attaches struck this American as very funny and weird. It never occurred to him that his own utilitarian, pragmatic values might not be the only relevant ones in this situation.
A few years ago, a group of American students teased one of their German peers about his heel-clicking, head-nodding, handshaking formality. After some months of being teased, he stopped them one day with the statement: “When I go to work in the morning, I go to my boss’s office, click my heels, bow my head, shake his hand, and then tell him the truth.” The teasing stopped.
Many American managers lack cultural humility. We are more pragmatic than other people, and if we encounter people less pragmatic, we view them as odd rather than wonder about the oddity of our being so pragmatic. We don’t consider our own culture as funny, odd, and in need of explanation, yet it is our culture which is probably in a statistical sense the most different from all other cultures. Let me give a couple of examples:
- Our mercantile attitude — embodied in our marketing skills and our efforts to sell anything to anybody — strikes people in other parts of the world as being rather crass and superficial. I have encountered managers in other countries who have real reservations about making products which they consider to have no intrinsic value, and who have even greater reservations about using advertising skills to create markets for such products.
- Our attitude towards efficiency — attempting to reduce all costs for the sake of higher profit margins, even if those costs are people’s jobs — is clearly out of line with the value systems in some other countries. Yet we take the importance of efficiency for granted. We do not think of people as capital investments and we find it hard to comprehend systems of guaranteed lifetime employment.
My point is not to dissect the value system of the U.S. but rather to identify a strong tendency I have seen in managers all over the world (Americans and non-Americans alike) to be ethnocentric — to assume that one’s own values are the best, and that one is excused from having to know what others think and value, or at least from having to take very seriously what others think and value. Such an absence of cultural humility can be a dangerous weakness when we are attempting face-to-face negotiations or problem solving. This point is important whenever we deal with people whose values are different from our own, whether these people are within our society or are from other countries.
Proactive Problem-Solving Orientation
Solving face-to-face problems, especially where difficult cross-cultural understanding and humility are required, presupposes a faith that problems can be solved if one works at them and an assumption that active problem solving will produce positive results. Communication and understanding are difficult to achieve, but if one does not even try, then there is no possibility for achievement.
A proactive orientation is itself to some degree a cultural characteristic. When Americans take the “can do” attitude, how do we determine when we are coming on too strongly, or when we are actually intruding in private lifespace in our eagerness to establish constructive face-to-face relationships in order to solve problems. The anthropologist Edward Hall has given us many excellent examples of how conducting business in different cultural contexts must be delicately handled, lest we invade people’s territory and unwittingly destroy the possibility of better relationships.3
What I mean by a “proactive orientation” is a motivation to work on problems, not necessarily a high level of overt activity. We must base our actual course of action on genuine cultural understanding and not simply on a desire to act. As in the case of international diplomacy, we should always be ready to negotiate. No matter how bad the situation is between management and employees in a company or industry, each party should always be ready to sit down and try again to talk face-to-face.
It does us little good to sense situations accurately if we cannot take advantage of what we perceive. I know people who can tell you exactly what is going on but who cannot alter their own behavior to adjust to what they know to be the realities. One of the reasons why experiential learning methods — such as sensitivity training or transactional analysis workshops — have been so successful is that they allow experimentation on the part of participants, thus permitting the participants to enlarge their repertory of face-to-face behavior. Role playing is perhaps the prototype of such behavioral training and is clearly a necessary component of face-to-face skill development.4
Much has been written about the process of negotiation and the skills needed to be an effective negotiator. To a considerable degree, what has been said reflects the same themes that I am focusing on here. Negotiation requires great sensitivity, humility, self-insight, motivation to solve the problem, and behavioral flexibility. Part of the sensitivity required is the ability to decipher others’ values. Another part is the ability to elicit information from others and to judge the validity of that information. Face-to-face relationships are not always benign, not always comfortable, not always safe, and not always open, yet they are always crucial to problem solving. Especially in situations where there initially is conflict, we need the ability to maintain relationships so that negotiations can continue, to decipher messages when deliberate concealment is attempted, to convince and to persuade, to bluff when necessary, and to figure out what the other will do in response to our own moves.
As we know, negotiations can become so dangerous and threatening to one’s face that we have to resort to neutral third parties as catalysts, go-betweens, message carriers, and the like. Often what is most needed is to explain the values and goals of each principal to the other. Principals often lack the skills to reveal themselves to each other without making themselves seem either too vulnerable or too threatening.5
One of my Australian manager friends speculated that a lack of verbal articulation skills seriously hampers negotiation in his country. He noticed that in many labor-management confrontations in Australia each side would blurt out bluntly, and with some pride at their own ability to be so open, exactly what their final demands were. When these demands proved to be incompatible, an impasse occurred. The situation then deteriorated to name calling and to seeing the other side as being stubborn and exploitative. This manager speculated that the educational system was partly responsible for this situation in that written English is heavily emphasized in school while spoken English is hardly attended to at all. He thought of Australians as being quite inarticulate, on the average, and therefore at a real disadvantage in face-to-face negotiations.
The important point is to recognize that openness is not an absolute value in face-to-face relationships. For some purposes, it is better not to reveal exactly where one stands. One of the ways that relationships become more intimate is through successive minimal self-revelations which constitute interpersonal tests of acceptance: if you accept this much of me, then perhaps I can run the risk of revealing a bit more of myself. Total openness may be safe and charming when total acceptance is guaranteed, but it can become highly dangerous when goals are not compatible, and acceptance is therefore not guaranteed at all.6
Interpersonal and Cross-Cultural Tact
Negotiation requires great tact. The tactfulness I refer to here is the behavioral manifestation of the cultural humility discussed above. If we don’t feel humble in the face of others’ values, we will certainly offend them. On the other hand, if we feel that there is genuinely room for different values in this world, then we have the basis for showing in our speech and behavior an adequate level of respect for others.
Repair Strategies and Skills
The repair strategies and repair skills needed to fix broken or spoiled relationships, careers, lives, negotiations, and other interpersonal or intergroup situations are probably the most important yet least understood of face-to-face skills. As the world becomes more complex and more intercultural, there will be more communication breakdowns, diplomatic disasters, losses of confidence and trust, hurt feelings between individuals and groups, hostilities, wars, and other forms of social pathology and disorder. It will not help us to resign ourselves to such situations, to lament our cruel fate, or to merely explain why something happened; what will be helpful is our attempting to repair these situations.
The concept of “repair strategies” was brought to my attention; by Jacqueline Good-now, a cognitive social psychologist who now teaches in Australia. She has been struck by the Australian tendency to “knock” things rather than to solve problems. I often heard the phrase in Australia that “we are a nation of knockers,” which means that when things go wrong there is a tendency to blame government, unions, management, multinationals, OPEC, or any other handy group rather than to figure out how to repair the situation.
The Perception of New Elements
Repair strategies presume and require not only constructive motivation but also the ability to see new elements in the situation which one may not have noticed before. The new elements may be in oneself; one may discover that one has been unfair or selfish, or lacking insight concerning the consequences of one’s own behavior or concerning one’s true motives. In this instance repair may begin with apology.
One may also discover new things in the other people in the situation; they may have changed in significant ways. One of the most damaging things we do in our face-to-face relationships is to freeze our assumptions about ourselves and others. Our stereotype of the other person can become a straight jacket or a self-fulfilling prophecy. McGregor gave us the best example of this years ago in noting that if we assume people are lazy we will begin to treat them as if they are lazy, which will eventually train them to be lazy.7 The energy and creativity which they might have applied to their jobs then gets channeled either into other situations or into angry attempts to defeat the organization.
We want and need predictability in our relationships, but that very need often prevents us from repairing damaged relationships. It may be psychologically easier to see the worker as lazy and hostile because we can then predict his or her behavior and can know exactly how to respond. To renegotiate the relationship, to permit some participation, or to admit that we may have been wrong in our assessment is to make ourselves psychologically vulnerable. We then enter a period in the relationship that may be less predictable.
As in the case of negotiation, we may need the help of third parties — counselors, therapists, consultants, or other helpers — to get through the period of vulnerability and instability. Often the motivation to repair is there but the skill is not — in the sense that neither party has self-insight, the capacity to hear the values or goals of the other, the articulateness to negotiate without further destruction of face, or the emotional strength or self-confidence to make concessions to reach at least a common ground of understanding.
Taking the Other’s Perspective
Sociologists taught us long ago that in childhood the very process of becoming social is a process of learning to take the role of the other. We could not really understand each other at all — even though we live in the same culture and speak the same language — without the ability to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. We could not develop judgments, standards, and morals without the ability to see our own behavior from the standpoint of others, which gradually becomes abstracted into what sociologists call the “generalized other,” or what we sometimes label as our “reference group.” Guilt and shame, the products of one’s internalized conscience, can be thought of as the accumulated empathy of a decade of growing up. As adults we have the capacity to see ourselves from others’ perspectives and this capacity should help us to develop repair strategies. Why is it, then, that so often we end up in complete disagreement, convinced that the only thing the other party really wants is to gain a selfish advantage at our expense?
One factor certainly is our need to maintain our position and our pride. Having suffered an affront, a loss of face, or a loss of advantage sometime in the past, we feel the only safe thing to do is to protect ourselves from any repetition of such an unpleasant event. We may, in addition, recognize that our own interest and that of the other party are genuinely in conflict. If we are in a zero-sum game, we may not be able to afford too much sympathy for our opponent. In such an instance, a repair strategy would call for the ability to locate some superordinate goals, where goal conflict is not intrinsic, and to build a new set of interactions around such superordinate goals. Skillful diplomats, negotiators, and statesmen build their entire careers around the development of such repair strategies. They create one repair strategy after another as the people they deal with destroy one relationship after another.
Ordinary day-to-day relations within families, between managers and subordinates, and between groups in organizations are forever in danger of breaking down. We must be prepared to diagnose the situation when breakdown occurs and to have the skills to repair it, if repair is needed. Let me give two examples of what is involved.
Repair Strategies in Midlife
Much of the research on midlife is beginning to point to the presence of two very broad phases, each lasting a decade or more.8 In the first phase, which lasts roughly from age twenty-five to age forty, the family in a sense colludes with the primary career occupant to build a successful career. The primary career occupant, his or her spouse or partner, and the children all learn that our occupational structure requires that one go to school and then put in an intensive decade or so building up one’s career (and one’s organizational membership if the career is pursued within an organization). The support by the family may be silent and stoic. The children are kept out of the career builder’s hair while he or she is busy. The spouse or partner — gladly or resentfully — makes sacrifices and actively develops a viable ancillary support role as homemaker and as mother and father combined.
But something else is going on during these years. The homemaker is in a terminal career and knows it; at some point the children will all be off to school, the house will have had all the attention it needs, and being the ancillary spouse may not be a full enough life. The spouse builds up expectations that at some point “it will be my turn; I have helped you to build your career and now I want something in return — something for myself.” As these feelings grow and are articulated, as teenage children begin to say “Why are you working so hard? What’s it all about anyway?”, and as the career occupant begins to reexamine his or her career, a new phase begins. In this phase, there may be a need for repair strategies, renegotiation of the family contract, and reassessment of who wants what and how it is best achieved. People discover either that their relationships are already damaged and need to be repaired or that they will be damaged if no preventive maintenance is undertaken.
Cross-Cultural Sensitivity within the Family
It should be noted that each family member has, in a sense, been living in a different subculture and that cross-cultural understanding and humility will therefore become very important. The career occupant will have to understand and respect the serious requirements of the spouse and the young adult children. The spouse and children will have to understand and respect the serious requirements of the world of work and organizations with which the career occupant grapples. This will tax each member’s self-insight, commitment to the family, sensitivity, and perspective.
The moral humility issue is central here because the cause of a damaged relationship is often a devaluing of each other’s goals and aspirations. The career occupant looks down on what may be regarded as the trivial or threatening values of the next generation; he or she cannot really appreciate why the homemaker spouse should have an issue about self-identity, the need to feel important and worthwhile in a society in which worth is defined almost exclusively by paid work and career involvement. The spouse (and most likely the children) find it easy to devalue organizational goals, to identify organizational careers with exploitation of the poor, marginal product quality, questionable business ethics, overworked people who are eventually cast off by cruel employers, and so on. If midlife family relationships are damaged by such feelings, then how can they be repaired?
The Interplay of Face-to-Face Skills
Each party in the relationship must first achieve some self-insight, some sense of one’s own commitments so that defensive-ness and denial can be reduced. We cannot hear others if we cannot accept ourselves. Next we need the kind of cross-cultural sensitivity I have been talking about, the relaxed, open ability to hear others’ values with empathy and perspective. Once we can hear each other, we can begin to seek the common ground, the goals or aspirations around which some common activities can be designed; we can begin to renegotiate the relationships to make it possible for the desirable activities to happen. If, in hearing each other, we find a genuine lack of common ground, we can negotiate a reduced level of intimacy in the relationship yet maintain a high degree of mutual acceptance of what each cares about; this can lead to nondestructive separations, more limited interactions with children, or both.
My second example has to do with face-to-face skills and repair strategies in labor-management situations. I am struck by the degree to which these situations seem to turn into intergroup struggles — struggles among unions, managements, and government bodies or political parties. Once the conflicts have escalated to the intergroup level, it is easy to give up one’s proactive problem-solving orientation and to resign oneself to the idea that the problem is essentially un-solvable. Yet when one looks at successful enterprises — those which have managed to maintain harmony between management and employees — one realizes that the key to this harmony is a high degree of mutual trust, active listening, appropriate levels of participation, and consistently constructive face-to-face communications.
An example will highlight what I mean. A plant manager told me that he had spent many years developing a constructive relationship with his employees, in spite of the fact that they belong to a strong national union which periodically calls for national strikes. One year his employees refused to strike. They were told by the national union that it would get all the suppliers of the plant to refuse to deliver, thus effectively shutting the plant down. Under these conditions, the manager and the employees got together and agreed that the employees should go out on strike, but everyone knew that it was not over local issues. The manager did not hold it against his subordinates that they had gone out on strike.
Intergroup trust, reinforced by open face-to-face communications on relevant issues, was strong enough to keep this plant functioning well even in a larger context that made periodic strikes inevitable. What we can learn from this is that constructive face-to-face relationships are necessary even though they may not be sufficient. Solving a problem at the national level will probably be useless if there continue to be destructive low-trust relationships within the enterprise.
Disengaging the Critical Mind
Achieving trust in a labor-management situation that has developed into a hostile inter-group conflict over a period of decades seems like a tall order. One prerequisite to working out the problem at the group level will be, as I have argued, the reestablishment of constructive face-to-face relationships. This will only be possible if both managers and workers find a way to see each other in less stereotypic ways. There is a need here to introduce in the interpersonal arena what Zen, gestalt training, encounter groups, and other training programs have emphasized — relaxing the active critical mind enough to let our eyes and ears see and hear what is really out there rather than what we expect to see and hear. Just as the person who is learning to draw must suspend what he or she knows intellectually about what things should look like, and, instead, must learn to see what is really out there, so the person concerned about repairing human relationships must first see not what he or she expects or knows should be there, but what is actually there.9
I don’t think it is accidental that Americans are so preoccupied with sensitivity training, Zen meditation, inner tennis, and, most recently, right-side brain functions.10 What all of these programs and approaches have in common is a focus on learning how to perceive oneself, others, and the environment realistically, which apparently requires a certain relaxation of our active critical functions and a deliberate disengaging of our analytical selves. We cannot improve face-to-face relationships if we cannot perceive accurately. And accurate seeing and hearing is for many of us a lost skill that we must somehow regain. The place to begin practicing this skill is in our families and in our immediate superior-subordinate and peer relations.
If we cannot see ourselves and others in this relaxed, uncritical way, then we cannot develop perspective, humility, or tact, and we run the danger of acting on incorrect data. On the other hand, if we can really learn to see each other, and if we can combine more accurate perception with the ninth element in my list — patience — then we have some chance of improving and repairing face-to-face relationships.
“Even though you try to put people under some control, it is impossible. You cannot do it. The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous. Then they will be in control in its wider sense. To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control him. So it is with people: first let them do what they want, and watch them. This is the best policy. To ignore them is not good; that is the worst policy. The second worst is trying to control them. The best one is to watch them, just to watch them, without trying to control them. The same way works for yourself as well.” S. Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.11