My wife and I went out with a group of friends and family last night to celebrate my birthday and had a great time. We spent a fair amount of time standing around waiting for our table because the restaurant was crowded and there were several in our group (like 11 or so). Once we finally sat down I decided to sit in the middle so I could more easily talk to people on both ends of the table.
As everyone got settled into their places and the waiter took everyone’s order, I noticed after a while there were two distinct conversations forming at either end of the table. I curiously thought to myself, “why?” What was even more intriguing was being seated in a “neutral or dead zone” where I was neither in or out of either conversation, but had carte blanche to either side. Instead of feeling like I had to choose a side, I decided to conduct an experiment with the group to see if I could get the entire table to talk about the same topic instead of engaging in the subgroups they had unconsciously and informally formed.
Considering I knew everyone at the table, it was fairly easy to get everyone to briefly engage in one shared conversation. What wasn’t easy was getting everyone to stay together without slowly migrating back to the subgroups they were initially a part of. Truthfully, the subgroups probably had more to do with convenience than anything else, because practically speaking it can be challenging to continually yell to the other person at the far end of a rectangular table. It’s certainly possible to yell, but it would probably be very annoying to everyone else at the table (including those stuck in the dead zone like I was).
As I continued to ponder on this I wondered how this concept of subgroups and communication applies to organizations and organizational culture. Is it good to have subgroups or not? How do they form? Why do they form? Is it good for members of an organization to feel included in a subgroup? How often should subgroups be united to share ideas, insights, and common threads? If getting the subgroups at my birthday dinner to stay connected through shared conversation was challenging, how much more challenging is it to get members of a large organization to stay connected?
One great example of a company that has grown to an immense size while maintaining a culture of openness and community amongst its subgroups is Google. There are a plethora of studies on the Internet on Google’s organizational culture, but some of my favorite facts are as follows:
- Google is classified as a “flat company” with a small number of middle managers and upper managers
- Regular employee engagement surveys allow employees to give feedback and affect changes at the company
- Employees are regularly informed on the company’s vision and where the company is headed
- Mistakes are encouraged and everything is up for debate
Each of these points could be separately unpacked in great detail, but the overall takeaway is Google encourages openness, communication, and creating a sense of family amongst the employees.
At my firm, we have a small team (10 people in total) that strongly encourages communication and feedback. Once a week we meet to discuss new investment opportunities, ideas, and firm level objectives. Having a standing meeting each week is a great way for our organization to maintain communication and make meaningful progress towards shared goals. I have worked a few places in the past where having regular meetings to keep employees informed about goals and objectives was about as common as witnessing a solar eclipse. Needless to say, being an employee working in the proverbial “dead zone” is neither fun nor satisfying. Sadly, a large percentage of the American workforce deals with this.
In summary, I had a great time with my friends and family celebrating my birthday. Although I was momentarily caught in the dead zone, I did not stay there (it probably would have been super weird to just sit there staring off into the distance like a doofus while everyone talked to each other). So, the next time you find yourself stuck in the dead zone, embrace it – you’ll likely learn something like I did. Cheers -KM.