Why Organizations Tear Themselves Apart

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The recently released spy film A Most Wanted Man tells the story of a small German intelligence group. The group is headed up by Gunther Bachmann (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Bachmann is tasked with tracking and disrupting Islamic terrorist groups operating in Germany. Set in the gloomy city of Hamburg, the film’s opening explains that it was here that the 9/11 attacks were planned for years with virtually no interference from German or American intelligence agencies. Although there were many reasons for suspicion and investigation prior to the terrorist attacks, both the German and American organizations did not respond effectively to them due to a lack of coordination and rivalries between and across governmental agencies.

At one point in the movie, Bachmann and his American counterpart discuss why they both work in this stressful and oftentimes brutal espionage environment. Bachmann states that he is committed to the goal of “making the world a safer place.” The American says the same. Yet, despite this shared vision, Bachmann becomes increasingly at odds with not only the American intelligence team. He also runs into conflicts with his colleagues working in different departments at the German agency. Despite the common threat hanging over both countries, some of the worst aspects of human nature are powerfully at work hindering a unified response and a team mentality.

Like intelligence agencies, large organizations must be organized into departments. But why is it so hard for those various departments to work together effectively? The film provides some interesting insights into why this is:

Us-Versus-Them Mentality

Bachmann leads a group of five people. From their interactions with each other, it is obvious that they have been working together for a long time and are extremely close. They trust Bachmann completely and they have great faith in one another because they have a deep knowledge of each other’s abilities and motives. Bachmann’s team keeps itself socially and professionally closed off from the other intelligence groups, and even physically isolated in their own facility – only rarely do they cross paths with their colleagues in different departments. By becoming so insular, Bachmann’s team makes it nearly impossible for other intelligence groups to trust and work with them and vice versa.

Failure to Build Broad Consensus

Bachmann is a brilliant analyst and spy handler, but he’s a terrible salesman. When he’s called to a meeting by his superiors to explain why he’s waiting to take a terrorist suspect in, he’s standoffish, cold and evasive. Present at the meeting are a number of folks that it is clear Bachmann doesn’t like, and he lets them know it. He struggles to communicate his methods and motives in a direct way and opts instead for making an analogy about fishing for sharks, which no one but himself seems to find amusing. Instead of winning his superiors and colleagues over to his side during this crucial moment, he mostly just angers and annoys them.

Old Wounds

Numerous characters throughout the film make allusions to some operation that Bachmann botched in Beirut years ago, which led to the deaths of several operatives. Ostensibly, this past failure was the result of Bachmann trusting someone too much who later betrayed him. Haunted by this fact and the inability of any of his colleagues to let him forget it and move on, Bachmann is paranoid to the point of trusting no one outside of his innermost circle. His past cripples his ability to coordinate with other departments.

Putting Personal Gain over the Interests of the Organization

As Bachmann and his team work their way up the terrorist network, it becomes ever more tempting for other departments and team members to capture these terrorists instead of turning them into informants, who can then supply information necessary to capture higher value targets. Although all the German and American intelligence agents claim that their only goal is to “make the world a safer place” that conviction is put to the test when those same agents realize that being able to take credit for capturing a low level terrorist is better for their individual careers than using the “asset” to help another department capture an even higher value terrorist.
The world of espionage is very different from the one most of us work in every day, but many of the same factors preventing optimal coordination and teamwork exist in every organization, regardless of the field or industry. Resisting cliquishness, learning to build a broad consensus, freeing people from their past mistakes, and properly incentivizing the attainment of group goals are all ways to break down the divisions that keep our organizations from working together.


Image credit:

“A Most Wanted Man Poster” by May be found at the following website: IMP Awards. Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of A Most Wanted Man (film) via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:A_Most_Wanted_Man_Poster.jpg#mediaviewer/File:A_Most_Wanted_Man_Poster.jpg

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