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The Brake, The Car Horn And What It Tells Us About Organisational Conflict

Image Credit: © nalidsa — #115478526

I am what I sometimes like to describe as a somewhat “reluctant” driver.  I have never really enjoyed driving, and since I live in a very congested city it is something that I’ll avoid doing if at all possible. 

One thing that I find particularly curious is the seemingly ubiquitous phenomenon of “road rage”.  We’ve probably all seen instances of this play out on the road, for a whole variety of reasons.  One particular pattern that seems to play out time and time again is:

  • Driver A makes an inadvertent mistake
  • Driver A’s mistake results in a minor inconvenience to Driver B (the kind of inconvenience that will seem completely insignificant in ten minutes time)
  • Driver B throws their hands up in disgust, uses the horn, brakes sharply, gesticulates and might even wind down the window and share their opinion of how bad the minor misdemeanour is.
  • Both drivers feel that the other was being unreasonable and drive away more angry than they were before

Looking at examples like this from the outside, it strikes me that each party has a partial and restricted view of the overall situation. Each brings with them “baggage” of previous experiences, and in the heat of the moment each reacts in a way that they might not do if they had the time to speak with the other party and understand more about their world.

Imagine this from Driver A’s perspective:

“I need to get to work, I’ve been late twice already this week and I’m on my final warning. I’m so tired… working two jobs is really taking its toll. Oh, and there’s so much traffic… why wouldn’t my kid get ready for school earlier so I could leave earlier. Wait, roadworks, these weren’t here before. Where’s the diversion sign–there’s so much traffic I can’t see it. Oh no! I’m in the wrong lane… I’ll signal and see if someone will let me in.  Please somebody let me in.  Ah, I think this red car is….. wait why are they speeding up?! Idiot!”

From Driver B’s perspective: 

“Why is everyone driving so crazily today. Yes, there’s roadworks but it was announced on the radio weeks ago and there’s been clear signage for weeks.  And all those <<insert car manufacturer name>> drivers! They are so arrogant. I don’t know why they even fit those cars with indicators/turn signals, they never use them.  What’s this blue car doing? I’ll slow to be cautious… hang on, I wasn’t letting you in! I’ll accelerate to make the point.  They are still moving! Idiot! ***hoooonnnk***”

Who is right in this situation? Either, both, neither? It entirely depends on your perspective. Does it change if I told you Driver A was new to the city? That Driver B had recently suffered a family bereavement? If we analyse things in a cold and clinical way these things shouldn’t matter (safe driving is safe driving after all), but whenever humans are involved, these things absolutely do matter.

A Car Horn Isn’t A Substitute For A Brake

When it comes to “road rage”, it seems that some drivers would rather focus on using the horn (and shouting and expletive) rather than avoiding the accident.  It is just so important to get that sense of injustice aired; we can imagine Driver B saying:

“That other driver needs to know how bad they’ve been. I need them to know how angry they’ve made me!”

Yet, does this pattern actually help anyone? I suppose some folks might find that getting something “off their chest” helps, but I suspect for many others it just creates an anger doom loop. Both drivers are left angry, and in their anger are more likely to make other minor driving errors (which could lead to more angry responses from other drivers). Stereotypes are reinforced: “oh those <<insert car manufacturer name here>> drivers really are all the same, this is more proof!”

This might sound abstract and unrelated to business and business analysis, but substitute “road rage” for “change rage”, “power plays” or “politics” and things start to look really similar.   The reality is that we all bring our own perspectives, our own “lens” and our own baggage to a situation. Nobody can see all of the facts and nobody can be completely agnostic.

In organisations we’ll hear phrases like “Oh, those marketing folk. They’re always so flighty and hard to pin down. They’re a nightmare to work with”. This might be true for some individuals, but how much of that reality do we create ourselves by actively looking for it? And if they do appear “flighty”, to what extent have we spent time understanding their world to understand why they are perceived in this way? Possibly not enough.  And if that is our perception of them, how do they perceive us? Have we ever actually asked them?! (Clearly I’m using marketing as a hypothetical example here, I could have chosen any discipline!)

Change Rage

Change initiatives are like a petri dish of this political “change rage”, with people (quite understandably) pursuing a whole range of aims–organisational and personal–often with a large dose of fear and misinformation thrown into the mix.  It’s all-too-easy to get into an escalation doom-loop, where Party A escalates as Party B appears to be non-cooperative. Then Party B escalates as they feel persecuted and singled out–or worse still they just disengage entirely.

Maybe in situations like this using the “brake” rather than the “horn” is a kinder thing to do. Slowing down gives us a chance to observe all around, to ask questions and to seek a broader understanding.  Acting with curiosity enables us to begin to understand each other’s mental models, along with each other’s “baggage”, so we can find a way of “learning our way through” the situation.

In the immortal words of Bob Dylan: “You’re right from your side, I’m right from mine”

This article is kindly supported by the Building Business Capability Conference.  All opinions expressed are my own.

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About the author:

Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

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2 thoughts on “The Brake, The Car Horn And What It Tells Us About Organisational Conflict”

  1. Adrian, your post reminds me of a discussion on the Volere stream a few years ago. The subject was the unfortunate habit if New Your taxi drivers to constantly honk their horns, even in situations where it want warranted, like coming to a halt at the back of a line of cars stopped at a red light.

    I shall cut to the end where one guy proposed connecting the cab’s horn to the meter, and even time the horn was sounded, 5 cents was deducted. Not enough to stop the driver using the horn as a warning (it’s proper use) but enough to discourage random or pointless honking.

    I propose that all cars have a device to count the number of times the horn is sounded. A driver is allowed, say 50 honks per year. At each yearly rental of the car’s registration, any honks over the permitted 50 attracts a fine which as added on to the registration fee.

    About now you systems thinking hat is on your head and you are looking at the effect of this. If drivers are seriously discouraged from honking, would this add to their anger? Do rude gestures from inside the car adequately take the place of a loud blast of the horn? Does it make then even angrier? Is this slight invasion of privacy justified by achieving a honk-free city? (IMP yes).

    You are right to say that we should look at the problem from the point of view of the aggrieved driver, but I think I am also right when I seek to control clearly unacceptable behaviour.


    1. @james, interesting point of view.
      In South Africa, I think we have our hands (by default), on the hooter (horn). I am ashamed to say that I am guilty of it too. The taxi drivers are a law unto themselves. Ask any South African and you will hear the frustration. There have been countless number of accidents with the cause attributed to the reckless of their driving.

      I read an opinion piece on taxi drivers and what their typical day looks like. The question posed by the author was, did we ever think that perhaps driving in the heat the entire day, stuck in traffic, with people rushing the driver, was an easy thing to do. Isn’t it reasonable that the guy could also have a headache or even a bad day?

      And that made me think…because I never thought of it yet it’s sych a reasonable, everyday normal thing.

      The taxi driver is also human and maybe some of the behaviour is due to the circumstances?

      I feel as humans, we should learn to have more tolerance instead of relying on the law to control these types of behaviour. Just my thoughts…

      @Adrian Reed – brilliant article as always! Thank you for sharing.

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