Getting to know you.
Getting to know all about you.
Getting to like you.
Getting to hope you like me.
Getting to know you.
Putting it my way, but nicely,
You are precisely,
My cup of tea.
—Oscar Hammerstein, “Getting to Know You” from “The King and I”
I’m not quite sure where this is going to go. But I’ll not know if I don’t start, right? I’m certain it would be both much more interesting and rewarding if you and I were talking about it over a cup of coffee.
I just got through reading Mark Kingwell’s book A Civil Tongue: Justice, Dialogue, and the Politics of Pluralism, where he considers how pluralistic societies might organize themselves. In it he cites a fable written by the philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer.
One winter’s day, a number of porcupines huddled together quite closely in order through their mutual warmth to prevent themselves from being frozen. But they soon felt the effect of their quills on one another, which again made them move apart. Now when the need for warmth brought them once more together, the drawback of the quills was repeated so that they were tossed between two evils, until they had discovered the proper distance from which they could best tolerate one another. Thus the need for society which springs from the emptiness and monotony of people’s lives drives them together, but their many unpleasant and repulsive qualities and insufferable drawbacks once more drive them apart. The mean distance which they finally discover, and which enables them to endure being together, is politeness and good manners.
Despite Arthur’s decidedly dour worldview, I have to say I’m rather taken with his notion of mean distance and I’ve been conjuring with it ever since reading the fable. Figuring out how to find that place where we manage to keep ourselves warm without doing each other damage seems worthy of a little conjecture. After all, being social animals, we humans spend our entire lives trying to figure out how to get along together. And while we’ve been at it for a very, very long time, even the most sanguine among us would have to admit that it’s an enterprise with which we’ve had mixed success.
So, what might mean distance look like in practice?
Well, for starters, I’ll tell you what it doesn’t look like: question period in the Canadian House of Commons where rudeness and bad manners are manifestly the order of the day. And pretty soon – if we are to attach any significance to the recent cranking up of nasty talk − these same people, those of the the uncivil tongues, are going to ask us to send them back to Ottawa, entrusted with our well-being. Models of incivility aspiring to create the conditions of a civil society for the rest of us. It kind of takes your breath away doesn’t it? So, no help from our political leaders.
Then there’s the boorish narcissism of popular culture that treats mean distance as something to be overcome − rather than finding a way to endure the “unpleasant and repulsive qualities and insufferable drawbacks” of others, it exploits our apparent need to revel in them. In particular, I have in mind reality TV. As Jersey Shore’s Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi told Barbara Walters in a recent interview, “I think I’m fascinating.” Need I say more? Self-esteem minus self-awareness equals self-aggrandizement.
Most of us, however, seem to have a rough idea of what mean distance means. Think about this. Five days out of seven, millions of us get out of our beds; negotiate early-morning rising rituals with our families; make our way by a variety of environmentally unfriendly means into the downtown cores of big cities; find our places of work; do our business; descend upon the food courts for an hour at lunchtime; go back to our offices and do more business; and then, at the end of the day, find our way home. Quite an impressive ensemble performance when you stop and think about it; a continuous flow of improvised encounters with others where we pursue our interests while accommodating, one way or another, the interests of others.
Schopenhauer’s right: politeness and good manners, as he so dourly puts it, go a long way towards enabling us to endure being together. I would, however, add something else to that mix. I have in mind a capacity for selective inattentive to those around us. We don’t really know most of the participants in these daily improvised jam sessions. And, quite frankly, this is not a bad thing. Let’s face it; if I knew everything about my neighbours in, say, the way Jerry Springer would have us know each other, I might sleep with a gun under my pillow. Here’s the thing: Some of my neighbours probably belong in jail, but until the criminal justice system gets around to putting them there, I just want them to pay their taxes and drive carefully. Put another way, I want them to be neither a burden nor a menace.
But then I got to thinking about organizations − the communities in which I have a special vocational interest; the place where many of us spend a good deal of our waking lives. Mean distance takes on a special significance here. It’s a good thing to have civil relationships with our nine-to-five neighbours and that involves knowing something about them – enough to get the job done while avoiding being subjected to their less attractive sides.
Let’s say that there is some kind of causal relationship between getting along well together and working well together. But which is cause and which is effect? That’s the question. And it’s an important one because getting hold of the wrong end of the cause-and-effect stick can have serious consequences. Here’s what I mean.
One of the presenting symptoms of a dysfunctional organization is morale that sucks. People are bringing out the worst in each other and performance is suffering. Someone gets the bright idea that some morale-boosting intervention would help. You get the picture: Bowling for Bonding; Frisbee for Fellowship. This is the remedial action of those who subscribe to the theory that people who get along well work well together. The strategy, in mean distance terms, aims at reducing the distance − more cuddling; more warmth. But what if the problem lies elsewhere? What if the conditions needed for good performance have not been satisfied? What if the problem is systemic and not social?
I’m put in mind here of the psychiatric practice of eliminating possible medical causes for a patient’s abnormal behaviour before beginning therapy. If your body’s chemistry is out of whack and it can be easily remedied with meds, you’ll be spared endless talk about how much you resent your parents.
In organizational terms this means asking a different set of questions. Is the organization structured properly? Do people understand their roles? Is the governance system adequate? Are the administrative systems doing what they’re supposed to be doing? Do people have adequate resources? Do they have the appropriate skills? Get any of this design and resourcing stuff wrong and the resulting dysfunctionality is bound to be demoralizing. And no amount of team building or social bonding exercises will fix that. You will, in fact, have made matters worse by exposing people to each others quills when there’s no chance of improving performance.
Faced with dysfunctionality, I think “people who work well together get along together” is a better going-in hypothesis than is “people who get along together work well together.” Put another way, getting along is not the condition for good performance; it’s the result of it.