A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

28 August 2009

What does it mean to "win"?

Political struggles are common in most work environments, and they sometimes seem to get particularly fierce in academia. I'm aware of one such struggle happening right now. It involves the heads of two departments within the same college. One of the department heads is a collaborator who believes resources should be generously shared for the benefit of students. The other is a competitor who believes in departmental "territory" and self-aggrandizement at the expense of others.

Each of the two departments fielded a student team in a national competition over the summer. The collaborator's team had the resources they needed to do well, and shared their ideas and their tools with the competitor's team. In turn, the competitor's team stole parts, broke tools, and actually sabotaged aspects of the collaborator's project. And sadly, it worked -- the competitor's team performed much better in the competition, and brought home prize money, which was secreted away into the competitor's departmental budget instead of being allocated for future team efforts (as was done with the prize money won by the collaborator's team).

But here's the question: who really won? Many of the students on the competitor's team were horrified to learn of the sabotage efforts, and equally horrified to learn that portions of their entry were plagiarized from the other team's work without due credit. The competitor's existing team members are asking to join the collaborator's team, and at the same time fearing the consequences to their degree programs. The competitor is forcing students to work on his team in order to receive necessary credit for graduation, rather than recruiting interested and willing team members. The resources that used to be openly shared are being carefully inventoried and locked up. The culture of the collaborator's department has, by necessity, changed from one of generosity to one of suspicion. Should we wonder why these kinds of shenanigans happen in the workplace when role models at school enable, and even encourage, this kind of behavior?

Climbing to a "win" by stepping on other people's heads may work for a short time, but it's not responsible, sustainable, or even very satisfying. A friend of mine used to say, "the cream rises to the top, but so does the scum." Well, both get skimmed off, too -- and taken to very different destinations.

Is there a competitor in your organization? Are there any collaborators? Who is winning, and what are you losing?

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