Mutual Misinterpretation, Leading to Decreased Interaction and Understanding: Oliver and Mark

This is a sad, but not so unusual example of smart colleagues, each using unsophisticated ideas about influence. As a result they slide into a downward spiral, developing untested assumptions that lead to a series of negative mutually reinforcing actions that eventually ruin their relationship.

Mark Buckley had recently been promoted from within the company to the position of president of “Vitacorp,” the newly acquired life insurance subsidiary of property and casualty company “Magnacomp.” Soon after taking office, he became increasingly unhappy with the behavior of his boss, Oliver Hanson, the Magnacomp group vice president responsible for Vitacorp. Oliver, a meteoric star at Magnacomp but unfamiliar with life insurance, repeatedly went to Mark’s subordinates for information. Mark found this maddening, because, on the basis of these apparently casual conversations, Oliver would leap to conclusions and begin asking Mark annoying questions about “the problems” in Vitacorp.

Because Oliver was unfamiliar with Vitacorp’s operations, Mark found his questions always slightly askew. They seemed to reflect more about the politics of Magnacomp and the proper ty and casualty business than the real problems facing Vitacorp. After several experiences like this, Mark decided to take action, but his in- direct attempts to hint at the issue with Oliver were met with irritation. Oliver would mutter something about needing to have a feel for what was going on.

Mark concluded that Oliver’s meteoric rise must be due to the fact that Oliver was an inveterate meddler who wanted to get the dirt on everyone so that he could make himself look good. This made Mark extremely cautious around Oliver, and he made ever y possible excuse to reduce the contact between them. “The less information I give that power-hungry SOB, the less harm he can do!” he thought. Their relationship became quite strained, and Mark began to wonder why he had ever wanted to be president.

Oliver saw the events quite differently. He had been placed in charge of Vitacorp as a developmental assignment. He had ideas, based on his general knowledge of insurance, about ways to improve Vitacorp’s performance, but they were a result of financial expertise rather than in-depth knowledge of Vitacorp’s life insurance business. Early on, he sensed Mark’s resistance to his conversations with people down in Mark’s organization; but since he wasn’t an expert on the business, he felt he needed a first-hand feel for the way managers thought. He had no intention of interfering, but he wanted more of a basis for judging how to assess the progress of Vitacorp. Furthermore, because Magnacomp’s culture was very political, Oliver assumed that Vitacorp would have the same kind of jockeying for position in the ranks that he had seen at Magnacomp. He believed that only a very naive manager would neglect to develop his own sources for deciphering the political maneuverings in a company he was responsible for.

With this set of assumptions, Oliver was surprised and disquieted by what he perceived as Mark’s secrecy and withdrawal. “What’s he got to hide?” wondered Oliver. “I’d better spend even more time talking with the troops, or I’ll really be flying blind.” Thus, Mark’s response to Oliver’s behavior made the situation worse (see the following figure for a summary of the pattern).

Mutually Reinforcing Actions and Assumptions