When Adults Act like Children

It's up to an organization's leaders to create a culture that fosters collaboration, writes Russ Linden.
July 16, 2008
By Russ Linden  |  Contributor
A management consultant, educator and author

Consider the following: The long-running feud between the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was recently examined in a Washington Post article that described truly astonishing turf battles between the agencies. The attorney general ordered the agencies to merge and share certain databases, but the FBI refused; the agencies have refused to share critical data at crime scenes, hampering efforts to apprehend criminals; the FBI created its own program to train bomb-sniffing dogs, even though the ATF has run a high-quality training program for years. And, perhaps most astounding -- at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, when 30 ATF agents arrived to do whatever was needed -- the FBI commander at the site told them to leave.

When you learn of such behavior, one question cries out for an answer: "Why don't these people grow up and act like adults?" Indeed.

So, what do you do when adults act like children?

When I ask managers in my classes what they make of such behavior, the most frequent replies are: It's a control issue. It's about narrow-minded people who only know how to follow the rules. It's how these folks were trained. It's about the reward and punishments people experience at work. It's about turf.

There is something to all of these explanations, but one of the most important factors is missing. When adults act like children, chances are good that they are working in an environment that allows (maybe even reinforces) such behavior. And, who is responsible for that environment? The organization's leaders.

Many state and local law enforcement agents have enormous difficulty working with the FBI. When pushed to explain, they will often note that while many FBI agents are great to work with on an individual basis, things change when they are surrounded by other FBI agents -- they're happy to take information from other agencies but don't share anything with others, and are quick to take all the credit when the bad guys are found. While the FBI culture has long roots and is a powerful influence on people's behavior, the FBI is no different from any other organization: Its culture can be changed if its leaders make change a priority.

What about you and your own leadership?

An extremely capable director of a large human-services agency was having a problem with his senior managers. "They're strong, talented managers," he said, "but they're also control freaks who love to guard their turf. I hate it, but what can you do? That's the cost of having strong people." It was suggested that the director's assumption was part of the problem -- that senior managers could change if they knew it was important to do so and why.

The director had one-on-one meetings with each manager, described the impact of their behavior on others, and told them it was unacceptable. After some testing, most of the managers made significant changes, and the agency's culture became much more open and positive.

Here is a starter list of steps that leaders are successfully using to create organizational cultures that foster collaboration and information sharing:

· Provide joint training. The police and firefighters in Charlottesville, Virginia, held a joint training session on how to deal with methamphetamine labs. Not long after, some firefighters responded to an alarm in a building, in which they smelled an unusual odor. Because of that training session, they recognized the smell and soon discovered a meth lab in the building, and were able to respond appropriately. When members of different organizational units train together, it's an opportunity to form relationships, learn about others' jobs and share important information.

· Look for ways to form relationships. When emergency management officials rushed to the Pentagon on 9/11, most of them worked very well together (the FBI-ATF conflict was a huge exception). The major reason for the strong spirit of collaboration was that these leaders knew each other. They had worked together on many task forces to write policies and engage in joint planning. Those relationships were critical during and after the crisis.

· Use career incentives. Many managers have learned the power of emphasizing collaboration in annual performance reviews, requiring demonstrated collaborative skills for promotions, and requiring rotations throughout different units in order to be considered for senior management positions.

· Avoid overlapping responsibilities. One reason for the bitter feud between the ATF and FBI is that their missions do overlap in some important ways. The leadership at the Department of Justice has not dealt with this overlap, enabling the kind of childish behavior cited earlier.

· Model mature, collaborative behavior and expect it of others. Jay Gregorius is a Drug Enforcement Administration veteran who's developed very positive relationships with local FBI offices wherever he's worked. How? He teaches by example, modeling the behavior by working hard at his relationship with his own FBI counterparts, and he absolutely expects his DEA agents to do likewise. They learn he's serious, that he will not accept excuses, and so they look for ways to reach out to the local FBI agents.

When adults act like children in the workplace, chances are good that the leaders aren't dealing with the issue. The message to managers is clear: the place to look is in the mirror. What are you doing to create an environment that rewards and expects adult, collaborative behavior?