August 21, 2004

Elitists And Others

Since my brilliance-on-command abilities are malfunctioning this evening, and since I don't want Ith's regular readers to keep coming up dry when they click here, I decided to post an essay I wrote in college. Some of you may know I went back to college at the age of forty-umph and graduated 3 years ago.

The course was "Organizational Behavior" (in English, that's advanced management) and the topic had to do with multicultural team decision-making and problem-solving. The date of the essay was October 5, 2000.

When asked to write about multicultural team decision-making and problem-solving, I am hard-pressed to recall any situation at all in my life wherein I was part of a team where anyone’s ethnic or cultural background had the slightest relevance in the matter at hand. In fact, I had to think hard to remember the teams I have been on which have included people from other cultural backgrounds because I take people as I find them, and the ability to work as a team has never been impacted in any way by cultural differences. In fact, having worked on school projects in recent years with (a) a young man from Brazil, and (b) three young men of Mexican-American heritage, I can only say, if that’s how they grow them in Brazil and in Hispanic families, bring them on! Working with each of those students was very rewarding; and again, there is no story at all to tell about the team decision-making and problem-solving. I am pleased to report that in all cases the teams functioned smoothly from start to finish, and produced excellent results.

In an effort to find inspiration for this assignment, I read ahead in the textbook to chapter 12, “Group Dynamics,” and chapter 13, “Teams and Teamwork for the 21st Century.” A statement at the top of page 397 jumped out at me: “. . . a stronger positive relationship between group effectiveness and value diversity (as opposed to demographic diversity.)” This goes to a concept I have been wrestling with and trying to nail down for a few years now, which is that in my own experience at least, the gaps most difficult to bridge between individuals have not been those of ethnic or cultural differences, but those of attitudes and values, and the very insidious prejudices held by those who consider themselves part of the intellectual elite.

Some years ago I saw a story on a TV news magazine about a woman from a small Midwestern farming community. What brought her to national attention was her simple act of writing a letter to the editor of one of the national weekly news magazines (Time, Newsweek, or US News and World Report). Her letter displayed such profound insight and grasp of the subtleties of whatever issue she was commenting upon that the magazine’s editors refused to believe that it could have been written by someone from a small town who had never been to college. I cannot recall all of the details, but this is the first instance that I can recall where the reality of the depth of intellectual prejudice came to my attention.

I began to ponder this issue again about four years ago, when I read The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy by Dr. Thomas Sowell. Sowell discusses stratification of society not by race, ethnicity, culture or gender, but by self-appointed elitists who set themselves above everyone else and truly believe that “ordinary people” are not competent to make their own decisions but need those same elitists to do their thinking for them. Sowell’s commentary struck a chord with me in that although I have experienced very little racial or ethnic prejudice directed at me personally (the exceptions being people in some of the other countries I have visited who simply dislike all Americans), I have very often felt the subtle but definite prejudice from those social or intellectual elites who look down their noses at anyone who is not a member of their particular group. I have served on numerous committees and projects with such people, who almost always have a very similar cultural and ethnic background to my own, but their self-proclaimed intellectual and/or social superiority have divided us just as surely as racial, cultural or religious differences have more noticeably divided various peoples for all of recorded human history. (As an aside, I have often wondered whether some of these folks would look at me any differently were I to show them evidence that I am directly descended from members of several of the royal houses of Europe, those of England and Spain to name just two. I have never cared enough to test the theory, though.) One can find countless examples of the intellectual superiority complex simply by watching politicians and pundits on television. Some of them presume to lecture the rest of us on how to conduct our lives—and some of them do not. The contrast is quite marked, if one pays attention.

On the employment front, although we do have a certain amount of ethnic and cultural diversity in our medical practice, again the sharpest divisions are found in value systems and perhaps even more in the arena of attitudes. Interestingly enough, the nurses, who with the exception of the doctors have the most education among the staff, have never shown any signs of intellectual elitism. They are far too busy doing their jobs and caring for patients. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the staff (without a college degree among them) have not followed the example of the nursing staff, and have set themselves up in an “us versus them” competitive environment, which seems to break along the lines of certain values and attitudes. An example of this “values diversity” came into sharp focus the day last year when one staff member asked another how she had enjoyed the Rodeo. “I dunno, I never got out of the bar,” came the reply. That someone would take the trouble to attend a large event and then actually skip the event itself in favor of hanging out in a bar is simply beyond my comprehension. This same person is one of the most vociferous “pot-stirrers” in the “us versus them” clique. The sections of chapter 13 in the text that jumped out at me were in this vein; for example the section on page 421 about cooperation versus competition, and the section on page 424 about group cohesiveness. In our office, the only group cohesiveness happens within the aforementioned clique. They display excellent cooperation and cohesiveness within the group—they spy on the non-group members and report back to each other—but cooperation between groups? Forget it. There is even subtle sabotage wherein members of that group neglect to do even very simple things for non-members that are actually crucial to the smooth functioning of the medical practice. For example, when a clique member makes a photocopy of a document for use by a non-member, they often do not bother to make sure that the copy is actually readable. This of course creates extra work for the non-member, who is then chided for being “petty.” Team decision-making and problem-solving? Not in our wildest dreams. Culture or ethnicity has nothing to do with the lack of cooperation.

Why is this childish and detrimental behavior allowed to continue? At the beginning of the semester, when I told my boss I was taking Organizational Behavior, he said “I hope you don’t use this office as an example!” Needless to say, we have at best ineffectual management. I would even go so far as to say our management is virtually nonfunctional. A discussion of the reasons behind that situation is far beyond the scope of this paper. I should point out, however, that the nursing staff answer to a separate nursing manager who simply will not tolerate turf battles, gossip and one-upmanship. I believe that is a major reason for the differences in working relationships between the nurses and the other personnel.

In conclusion, lest I be misunderstood, let me state that I do not intend to imply that cultural differences do not impact team decision-making and problem-solving. I merely wished to show that they have not impacted my own experience, and as I understood the parameters, this assignment was intended to be a reflection from my own personal experience. Having a common cultural background with co-workers has taken a back seat to our differences in attitudes and values. Between me and my fellow students, however, the common values of hard work and pursuit of excellence have transcended any cultural differences that might have existed. My experience therefore has been that values, attitudes and intellectual prejudice have played far greater roles in the success or failure of teamwork than cultural matters.

Posted by CrankyBeach at August 21, 2004 8:29 PM | PROCURE FINE OLD WORLD ABSINTHE

Hoo-ah, Cranky, that was some erudite evisceration. Did you get an F and a summons to the principal?

Posted by: Eclectra at August 21, 2004 9:44 PM

Cool! I used to teach organizational behaviour at Humber business school.

Posted by: Ghost of a flea at August 21, 2004 9:45 PM

Eclectra: No, actually, the professor (who was impossible to peg politically) wrote "A very insightful discussion" at the bottom of the paper and gave me 19 out of 20 points. (I never saw him give a perfect score on anything, so that was about as good as it got.)

Ghost: Interesting. What grade might YOU have given me for that paper?


Posted by: CrankyBeach at August 22, 2004 9:02 AM

Excellent post...I agree with your instructor "very insightful"...I'd give you an A (even though I've never taught a class in my life)!

Ive posted it in my livejournal

Posted by: Sharon Ferguson at August 23, 2004 8:24 AM