May 24, 2007

Confrontation in organizations



My first reading of Intel was by way of a critical book called Inside Intel. There I discovered the aspect of Intel's culture instituted by Andy Grove called "Constructive Confrontation".

It left me fascinated. Because apparently here was a large organization that was living one of the central precepts of organizational development. That is, people would not hesitate to challenge others in meetings. No more group think. In fact, I had the opportunity to facilitate a group of Intel managers' team meeting on one occasion and I found them passionate, and not at all quiet.

However, I also know that Intel has struggled to grow a similar culture in their India development centers. That's because, confrontation, specially of authority figures is anathema to most Indians.

According to this post at Prof. Sutton's blog Intel's core values of constructive confrontation maybe have been changing.

A former Intel insider, Logan Shrine, wrote me this morning about his book about the demise of the Intel culture (written with Bob Coleman) called “Losing Faith”. As an ex-Intel employee who had worked there under Andy Grove and also under the two subsequent CEO's (Barrett and Otellini), I can tell you unequivocally that constructive confrontation was a license for assholes to be assholes and express themselves (one most likely thinks of engineering stereotypes). It wasn't there to police them, but to give people carte blanche to express those behaviors. There is and has never been (during my tenure) any consequences for managers who are assholes at the company.
In fact, I'd like to attest that what made Intel's culture operationally perform was when everyone was treated equally under constructive confrontation and people exercised their right to constructively confront other people when they witnessed a clear violation of Intel values. Although I would not condone Intel's form of this behavior at any other company, it worked at Intel when the culture was egalitarian in its enforcement of the practice. What changed in the culture (I talk about this in my book, "Losing Faith: How the Grove Survivors Led the Decline of Intel's Corporate Culture") is when the managerial ranks put themselves "above" the values and practices of the culture - in effect, considered themselves "entitled."


As I have mentioned earlier, unspoken norms give off more truth about organizations than "professed values". Sticking to such values through behavior is the key.