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 October 97 Cover Story





by Annette Simmons and J. Michael Crouch

How turf battles undermine quality improvement -- and what you can do about them.

Turf battles are a fact of life -- and all too often a way of life -- in many organizations. But they are particularly destructive for companies involved in quality improvement. Turf battles can debilitate and defeat quality initiatives, and are often responsible for lost business opportunities that exact a high cost from the entire company. This article will take a look at some of the more common territorial tactics and suggest countermeasures to create a healthy and cooperative atmosphere while implementing quality changes.

The practice of turf warfare is ancient. One of the earliest examples on record is a 15th century B.C. tussle between a pharaoh who advocated adopting sun worship and high priests who were committed to maintaining Egypt's pantheon of gods. (The priests ultimately won; evidence suggests the king's early demise was not from natural causes.) The first textbook detailing how actually to conduct such battles was The Prince, written by the Italian "diplomat" Machiavelli in 1517.

The guerrilla tactics implicit in turf battles are devious in nature. Because most modern sensibilities are offended by such conduct, few people will acknowledge engaging in such practices. As an indication of the sensitivity of this topic, only three of 15 current and past senior managers and quality directors interviewed for this article would consent to be identified, much less quoted. Most shared their experiences only on the condition of anonymity. But evidence suggests the overwhelming majority of people in today's workplace have witnessed, participated in or been victims of fratricidal organizational turf battles.

After several years studying the phenomenon that everyone talks about but no one acknowledges doing, Annette Simmons, head of the Greensboro, North Carolina-based Group Process Consulting, is shedding some light into this dark corner of human organizational behavior. Her new book, Territorial Games: Understanding and Ending Turf Wars at Work (AMACOM Books), identifies the 10 most common turf tactics and offers some strategies to mitigate their impact.

Turf vs. turf

The following two illustrations of turf battles came from the collective experiences of Sharon Shehdan, former quality manager at Broadband Technologies and examiner for the North Carolina State Quality Leadership Foundation; Jane Martin, president of Martin & Co., a performance consulting firm; Winston Hodges, formerly with AT&T and now vice president of Professional Value Added, a management consulting firm; and me.

Illustration 1 -- After sidestepping several months of intensive lobbying, the CEO finally was graced with the light of understanding. He ordered a "quality strategy offsite" meeting for senior management, at which he expounded his newfound wisdom and commitment. The senior management team then convened as the quality council and unanimously voted to start a companywide total quality management effort. All professed their absolute conviction and pledged their commitment. "This is too good to be true," thought the quality director. It proved a prophetic insight.


Strategic Noncompliance
Agreeing upfront to take action while having no intention of taking that action, or cooperating in order to buy time to find a way of avoiding taking action.

Information Manipulation
Withholding or putting a spin on information, or covering up or giving false information.

Marking territory, maintaining an imposing physical presence, acting as the gatekeeper for vital information, and monopolizing relationships, resources or information.

Subtly or overtly excluding an individual in a way that punishes him or her, or orchestrating a group's behavior so that someone is obviously "out-group."

Using personal attacks or irrelevant criticisms to create doubt about another person's competence or credibility.

"Growling," yelling, glaring or making threats to scare off an individual.

Using excessive verbiage to prevent action, out-talk objectors in a meeting or monopolize, and thereby exhaust, meeting time.

Invisible Walls
Actively instigating actions or creating counterproductive perceptions so that an argued directive will be, if not impossible, extremely difficult to implement.

Creating a distraction, emphasizing the inconsequential, sending someone off on a wild goose chase or deliberately triggering someone's anxiety buttons.

Powerful Alliances
Using relationships with powerful people to intimidate, impress or threaten others; engaging in name-dropping and strategic displays of influence over important decision makers.

Three weeks later, the quality director walked into the first cross-functional process improvement team meeting. The council had selected nine people for the meeting, yet only four were seated around the table. "Where are the sales and marketing reps?" he asked.

"Sarah called down a few minutes ago," came the response, "and Ed [vice president of marketing] told her he had other things they needed to do. They won't be here."

Marketing had a huge stake in the current process. They also believed -- correctly -- that they had the most to lose if the status quo changed. The quality director stormed into Ed's office. "What gives, Ed? You agreed at the management offsite to create a team to improve the prototyping process. Now you're pulling your people off?"

Avoiding eye contact, Ed responded: "We moved too quickly. We need to rethink whether now is the time to look at that process. After all, the old system has worked pretty well in the past." Then came the actual reason, as he turned to take a call. "Anyway, I have real work for those people. The annual sales meeting is only seven weeks away."

Outranked, outflanked and angered, the director stalked out of the office. Ed had just handed him a "Go to Jail" card, and he had to figure out how to get back on the board. As he plodded down the hallway plotting his revenge, he recalled the words that announce the start of the Olympics: "Let the games begin!"

Illustration 2 -- A large multinational corporation created a cross-functional, cross-national group to put a major quality initiative back on track. Months behind schedule, the project was virtually stalled. While investigating the causes, a consultant discovered that one department, which should have been a major contributor, had been sidelined due to a reputation for ineffectualness. Any suggestion of including the department in planning or implementation was met with a chorus of "Remember the Revision Episode." Two years ago, the department had mistakenly released a product without confirming it was, in fact, the latest revision. A big mistake, certainly, but the only black mark marring an otherwise excellent performance record.

Other departments, concerned with maintaining the status quo, wanted to minimize this department's ideas and influence. They emphasized the mistake at every opportunity, keeping it foremost in everyone's mind as evidence of the department's incompetence: "They will screw this up, too, just like the Revision thing." Once branded with the scarlet "R," the department was unable to contribute to quality problem solving.

The "R" department's natural response compounded the situation. They were deliberately less than helpful to those who continued to deprecate their image. The situation spiraled downward. Though, ultimately, events forced cooperation and a solution to the quality issue, the damaged reputation of this department continues to make it difficult for them to do their best work.

The above represents two classic turf battles, but as Sharon Shehdan asserts: "People are becoming more sophisticated and covert. This is especially true when there is strong senior management support [for TQM]. People have become more subtle with their resistance."

I asked Annette Simmons to consider these examples in light of what she has learned about turf warfare and suggest ways to reduce or eliminate this sort of behavior. She begins with an overview of her research.

Games people play

For you to understand territorial games, you must look at your company differently. Pretend it could be mapped into regions and countries, each with distinct boundaries and terrain. Where are the lines drawn? Every company has areas that people come to think of as their own. Such areas may be sales, marketing, operations, engineering, accounting and senior executives, or they could be divided by regional lines (north and south) or relational lines (family, old mergers). Regardless, you will find that territories develop ownership of "their" area and "their" way of doing things. They even develop their own language and jargon.

Every quality initiative implemented must, by definition, be an invasion of someone's territory. Sometimes the people within that territory recognize the benefits and welcome the "invaders" as valued visitors there to help. Even so, quality managers often assume the benefits of quality philosophy and new processes are obvious to others, and barge into claimed territory uninvited. With the best intentions, they begin analyzing the territory and suggesting improvements to existing systems. Predictably, the territory's "owners" feel attacked and respond with territorial games. They treat the quality manager like an outsider.

Pursuing a continuing quality initiative is the same as constantly saying "It's never good enough" to people whose egos not only insist that they are good enough but strive to be the best. When things get personal (and don't we all draw self-esteem from our feelings of competence?), people start playing games.

Scan the following 10 territorial games and see if you recognize any of them from your own experiences.

  Strategic Noncompliance -- Agreeing upfront to take action or cooperate, then waiting until the last minute to back out (as in Illustration 1).

  Information Manipulation -- Withholding or interpreting information in a way that keeps the initiative from progressing.

  Occupation -- Monopolizing resources (people, time) to prevent them from being reallocated to the initiative

  Shunning -- Socially excluding an individual in a way that brands him or her an outsider to the rest of the group.

  Discredit -- Using personal criticisms (as in Illustration 2) to diminish the competence or credibility held by "those quality people."

  Intimidation -- Using scare tactics or veiled threats to warn off perceived      invaders. A "back-off" stare is often enough to sabotage another's efforts to implement an initiative.

  Filibuster -- Talking long and hard enough in order to squander development time, leaving issues unresolved.

  Invisible Walls -- Covertly blocking forward momentum by creating logistical impossibilities.

  Camouflage -- Diverting people with irrelevant issues or projects to keep them away from quality initiatives.

   Powerful Alliances -- Using relationships to stimulate games in areas outside an invaded territory.

Do any of these games sound familiar? "Owning" decision-making territory, information and influence has replaced old notions for determining employees' chances of survival and success in a corporation. Psychological impulses now generate emotions formerly reserved for physical survival. Once emotions kick in, behavior often becomes irrational. And that is when, with a nod to the Olympics, the "games begin."

If a group of employees feels you are invading their territory, they may react in an instinctive, emotional way. All the logic in the world will not help you, or them, understand these emotions. Emotions are not logical. Department heads might begin mindlessly protecting territory, losing sight of organizational goals, sabotaging needed changes, even destroying a carefully designed quality initiative before it gets off the ground.

So what do you do?

Forget the word "should"

They shouldn't be doing that, should they? No, but they are. So forget the word "should." Stop yourself every time you think, "They should be able to see " or "The negative long-term implications are ..." or "The quick fix costs them more in the end." If the evidence tells you they don't see, use that as constructive data! You will fare much better by understanding what they do see before you begin swaying them toward your viewpoint.

 Focusing too much on "should" distracts you from correctly addressing the emotional dynamics at play. People are people. They can get territorial about anything they perceive as valuable. These days, this includes many intangible things -- relationships, authority, information -- and these territorial feelings will cause employees to protect their turf. Your efforts to implement quality changes will create territorial games. They shouldn't, but they will.

Pre-empt the games

There are ways to build a quality implementation plan that pre-empts much of the game-playing. Territorial feelings are easy to anticipate. Whenever an initiative involves any kind of change in resource allocation or redefines a process so that a treasured "right way to do things" becomes the wrong way, you can expect some territorial games. Figure out who might feel as though the initiative is invading their territory. Then make some upfront agreements about cooperation that specifically address the anticipated games.

Because these games often are linked to ego protection, I like to establish a group agreement against game-playing that overrides the group ego's initial impulse to protect their turf through games. For example, I recently worked with a group where downsizing was part of their future plans. I anticipated that the needed reduction-in-force was more easily embraced as a concept than a reality. Several senior managers were already taking steps to protect their departments (territories). Before we even began discussing specifics, I introduced the 10 territorial games to the entire group and facilitated agreements to minimize game-playing.

During the relative calm before the stormy reality, all senior managers agreed: They would not play any of these territorial games. However, once the plan narrowed to whom, specifically, would be losing staff, the inevitable impulses to make everyone look busy (occupation), rehire someone as a consultant (strategic noncompliance) or bully the human resources people until they stopped asking for job descriptions (intimidation) had to be reviewed consciously against the list. This tactic doesn't always work, but it allows you to highlight previously covert game-playing in a way that renders it ineffective. It is much easier to get away with a strategic noncompliance when it doesn't have a name.

Keep in mind that if you are implementing long-term quality enhancements, you may want to concentrate first on creating a culture where game-playing is more the exception than the rule.

Create a culture that doesn't play games

Easier said than done? Sure. Impossible? No. Along with the tangible aspects you target in your organizational culture, more subjective norms and values determine internal behavioral boundaries. In some organizations, personal ego battles, old turf wars or long-standing rivalries are not only tolerated but celebrated like sports contests. Unfortunately, product and service quality usually suffers as a result.

Only in a company where these sorts of games are considered unacceptable can real quality survive. Building such a culture requires a determined, positive examination of the organization's underlying assumptions, creating powerful feedback that demonstrates how counterproductive these games can be and building new norms into the system.

Creating a culture that values the different contributions of "us" and "them" means that groups can concentrate on the real enemies: poor quality and the competition.


About the author

J. Michael Crouch, CEO of LEADS Corp., has 27 years' experience in the field of change management, the last 12 years specifically in TQM. He was corporate director of quality management at Blue Bell Inc. for three years, where he directed a TQM effort involving more than 20,000 employees. Blue Bell is a large textile manufacturing firm that makes Wrangler blue jeans and Jantzen swimwear.

Since 1987, Crouch has been a principal and officer with LEADS Corp. He became president in 1993 and CEO in 1996.

Crouch is the author of An Ounce of Application Is Worth a Ton of Abstraction. He is a member of the ASQ, AQP and QPMA.


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