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Overcoming turfism in the workplace

MANILA, Philippines—Ever encountered a co-worker or colleague who’s had a penchant for encroaching on someone else’s job description thus creating resentment and squabbling? Or overheard someone at another department saying something like “don’t show this to the guys in finance—they’ll just screw it up”?

The first example may well be someone overzealous about revision and change without bothering to survey the environment (though he may be well intentioned). The second is an attempt to keep important members of a team out of the loop and withhold information from them. These are classic cases of turfism, a phenomenon that has ruined many a work relationship, in the end, costing many businesses.

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Harvey Robbins, in his book “Turf Wars,” injects sarcasm and humor in defining turfism: A territory that individuals and gangs are sworn to protect, beginning with one’s butt.

Robbins says the turf warrior is often armed with survival weapons, among them, “one regulation whistle for calling for reinforcements when outnumbered by the facts, one microscope for monitoring one’s daily activities, one calculator for calculating one’s own objectives against company goals, and one digital indicator for heavy-duty finger-pointing.”

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Robbins laments the fact that the hopeless redundancy of turfism has two faces. “One is that good ideas don’t spread, and in fact, must be reinvented from turf to turf. The other is that uniformity never quite takes place—departments are forever groping in the dark of their own prescribed turf … while it protects us against worst-case scenarios, it prohibits best-case scenarios from happening,” he says.

Insecurity

Turfism, like gangism, he says, is simply a response to insecurity, powerlessness, and an inability to see the larger picture. “Despite the name of the tailor inside our jackets, we are—as we conduct our businesses—still flying the colors of our gangs. The colors fade in and fade out. One moment they are the colors of one department, the next a clique within a department, a class of professionals throughout the company, people in the same pay range, or people wearing the same college pin,” writes Robbins.

He says turfism covers all behaviors springing from a deep-seated unwillingness to cooperate with others within the company. “It is the refuge of individuals who feel they are down to their last patch of selfhood, and that it’s better not to team up with people who are not on your team,” he adds.

Power

Robbins says turfism may stem from two types of corporate power: position power and information power. He cites a very common example where a boss lords his power over others on a “do-it-because-I-say-so” basis.

“Position power does not lend itself to the formation of team commitment or loyalty,” he says.

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Information power, on the other hand, is that which one possesses because of what he knows. “I think of Albert Einstein’s remark that ‘nothing is yours until you give it away,’ which means that it is not in the nature of knowledge to be kept apart like property; rather, like air and water, knowledge exists in order to be shared,” he says. “When a person feels truly powerful—that is, when he has self-esteem—it is natural to share knowledge. When a person feels powerless, it is a constant temptation to hoard whatever scraps of information one possesses.”

Leadership

So what’s a CEO or department head to do to bust turfism? Robbins offers a solution by distinguishing between management and leadership.

“Management is about the how of doing things, while leadership is subtler and has to do with the why. Management, by establishing routines that enhance continuity, creates turfism. Leadership, by seeking innovative ways to engage people in common achievement, overcomes turfism,” he explains.

He says turfism cannot exist in a company that has achieved clarity in regard to its goals and objectives, roles and responsibilities, procedures and relationships. “Leadership is an integration between continually strengthening your competitive position and genuinely valuing the people that make success possible. It means initiating the process of clarifying goals, roles procedures and relationships. Management skills alone cannot do it,” he says.

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