Workplace Reality #2: “Organization deliberately sets up conflicting goals for people”

This post is part of the series on 9 Realities of Modern Workplace.

In this post, we talk about Reality #2: “Organization deliberately sets up goals for people and departments that conflict with each other“.

There are 2 reasons why organizations end up creating conflicting goals:

  1. Organizations need a healthy checks-and-balances system. They need one set of people to keep a tab on what another set is doing and hold them accountable. For example, finance team is there to make sure money is not being spent unwisely by other groups (of course, they have other goals too!).
  2. Organizations are quite complex. It is very hard to rationalize the goals of one group with the goal of others. It is expected that individuals in these positions will rationalize and get to a common set of goals as needed. So sales is asked to get high revenue (hence sell more and more), engineering is asked to deliver best quality (hence take more time to build it well), and these 2 groups are expected to work out the right balance between them. Simple!

The conflicting nature of goals can create unpleasant situations which are hard to understand. A few examples:

  1. Expense filing process becomes too complicated and keeps getting complicated every year. This makes rest of the company mad at finance team and creates bitter relations. Finance team feels this bitterness is unjustified because they are just doing their job of tracking expenses.
  2. An aggressive sales team becomes over-demanding and keeps selling more than what the engineering can deliver. Engineering team feels burdened and frustrated and end up producing poor quality. This makes sales team mad because they feel engineering is not doing its job.
  3. Developers take too much time to write their code and testers don’t get enough time to test it, letting the product go with inferior quality. When customers complain, tester gets blamed for quality.

Almost all of these (and other similar ones) hard-to-understand situations can be explained if we look at the goals and how they interact when 2 groups come together. Finance goals of strict control on expense conflicts with other groups’ goals of spending little time on non-revenue generating work. Sales team goal of quantity (which is proportional to revenue) conflicts with engineering goal of quality. Developer goal of code completion conflicts with test goal of comprehensiveness.

As if this was not bad enough, organizations create incentives (bonus, rewards, raises) to motivate people to focus on their goals. This makes the situation more complicated by making people push more for some goals than others (and the balance is disturbed more and conflicts are harder to resolve). But that is a topic of its own, to be dealt with on another day!

The way out of such situations having conflicting goals is negotiation and influencing of parties involved. However, most people view this suspiciously and give it an easy name – organizational politics. They dream of working in a company that will have no politics, and fail to see the reality. Smart people instead spend their time mastering their negotiation and influencing skills, and develop networks within organization that helps them navigate these conflicting goals.

In the next post, we will discuss the Reality #3: “Most performance review systems are broken and useless“. Stay tuned.


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