A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
April 11th, 2014 by William

The Hedgehog’s Dilemma

The Hedgehog’s Dilemma, or sometimes called the Porcupine’s Dilemma, is an analogy about the challenges of human intimacy. It describes a situation in which a group of hedgehogs all seek to become close to one another in order to share heat during cold weather. They must remain apart, however, as they cannot avoid hurting one another with their sharp spines.

The concept originates from a parable from the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s Parerga und Paralipomena (Greek for Appendices and Omissions), a collection of philosophical reflections published in 1851. Included in the work is a tale about the dilemma faced by hedgehogs during winter. In seems the animals tried to get close to one another when it grew cold, to share their body heat. However, once they did so, they hurt each other with their spines. So they moved away from each other to be more comfortable. The cold, however, drove them together again, and the same thing happened. At last, after a great deal of uncomfortable huddling and dispersing, the hedgehogs discovered they were best off remaining at a little distance from one another.

Sigmund Freud used this situation to describe the state of the individual in relation to others in society. The Hedgehog’s Dilemma provides a perfect metaphor for how workers interface with each other in the modern workplace−many times despite good intentions, our interaction with others results in mutual harm. As Freud said, “Our simultaneous need for closeness and distance is a fundamental reason why people often find it so difficult to work successfully in groups and teams.”

In the workplace, we all are faced with The Hedgehog’s Dilemma whether we consciously realize it or not. We all judge people (even if subconsciously) as being friend or foe worthy before we let ourselves “get too close.” Though we all may share the intention of close reciprocal relationships, many times it just can’t happen. Why is it that working relationships are so often difficult? All the answers lie in our own human nature: our inability to trust others and our inability to see past our own needs and wants.

Our inherent lack of trust is probably the foremost reason workplace friendships are tough to nurture. Each one of us could probably come up with specific examples of when someone threw us under the bus, or told lies about us to our colleagues or boss. But trust isn’t all there is to this equation−there are other reasons that friendships at work may not be in our best interest. Note that I’m not an advocate for a constant state of confrontation between employees−we still need to be respectful (even if the person doesn’t necessarily earn it) and act professionally in our dealings with others.

The first reason that striking up friendships is not a good idea is our innate feelings of vulnerability. Believe it or not, our fear of vulnerability is a driving force governing our everyday actions. Sharing who we are−our hopes, dream, fears, values, weaknesses−is inherently risky when you’re sharing with someone who might be vying for the same promotion. You can’t be friends with someone you see as competition or who sees you as competition. There’s only so much upward mobility to go around and if you and your colleagues all have your eyes on the same prize, things will eventually get ugly or at least awkward and passive aggressive.

Remember the workplace is not quid pro quo. If you scratch someone’s back you won’t necessarily have your back scratched−it will probably be stabbed.

Flat out, your subordinates and (especially) your superiors aren’t your pals. As much as we want to believe the human race is not evolved enough to disregard the unequal distribution of power that runs rampant in most organizations. And when it comes to your boss, you simply can’t be friends with the person who is responsible for deciding if you get a raise or not.

Lastly, remember there is on the order of 100,000 hours (more if you’re a workaholic or work for one) you’ll spend at work in your lifetime and sadly, there is little doubt that a good chunk of those hours will be spent working alongside people who drive you crazy. In fact given all the hours you’ll be trapped with your colleagues before all is said and done every last one of them will reach the level of annoying.

Also I don’t want you to confuse this whole subject of friendship with coworkers with what is, or isn’t, good behavior. An organization’s management team sets the right cultural behavioral norms and that has nothing to do with whether everyone is buddy-buddy. You can behave according to the organization’s norms (even when the norms include throwing people under the bus) and still not be friends with your co-workers. As a matter of fact the more dysfunctional the organization the less likely anyone should be or will be friends.

We see the effect of The Hedgehog’s Dilemma most within teams, so if we look closely at the organizational team context, we can see how The Hedgehog’s Dilemma plays out in daily interactions. Unfortunately teamwork is a crucial element of the effectiveness of organizations−we can’t always just be “individual contributors.” Teams are critical if you want goal oriented thinking and the ability to effectively deal with the inevitable (daily) crises that will occur. However, just like in the everyday whirlwind, that is our specific job, we don’t “have to be” friends with our teammates to act as a team. In fact I would make the case that teams work best when the members perform at arms-length. Remember that most often teamwork simply means completing your job so someone else can do theirs.

That said the ability to work in a team and thus accept some degree of closeness with others is undeniably essential in present-day organizations. Yet the reality for most teams is that the members find it very difficult to find the right balance between being close to teammates and keeping a healthy distance. That’s because for most of us, being on a team represents a hassle, a burden, or a necessary evil−thus making teamwork even more difficult. Although many teams do generate remarkable outcomes, most become mired in endlessly unproductive sessions, and are rife with conflict−the antithesis of friendship.

Last week’s post detailing “The Abilene Paradox” gave us insight into how groups or teams make decisions. Many times team members agree with the teams’ course of action despite not really agreeing. They then blindly follow whoever has the strongest opinion about what course of action to take−usually the boss’ opinion.

Because of The Hedgehog’s Dilemma, in many organizations the formation of teams and committees is a defensive act that only gives the illusion of real work all the while disguising unproductive attempts to preserve the status quo. At best, these teams do little harm because fundamentally they do nothing of real value however, at worst; these teams become a vehicle for blocking constructive change within the organization.

Unfortunately, dismantling a dysfunctional team is like untying the Gordian Knot. Unlike in the story where Alexander the Great simply “cut” through the knot we can’t always cut through the interpersonal issues and have everything miraculously solved.

This dilemma−our simultaneous need for closeness and distance−is a fundamental reason why we often find it so difficult to work successfully in groups and teams and why it’s difficult to really have people we can call a friend at work. Paradoxically, friendship in the workplace is both a response to complexity, and a creator of complexity. The bottom line is you can’t be buddies with someone who’s playing the same game of corporate musical chairs that you are.


One Response to “The Hedgehog’s Dilemma”
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