On Saturday morning, as I drank my cup of coffee, I turned on the TV to check out the weekend political news shows. On one of those shows, Up with Chris, had a panel of “freshman” members of the U.S. House of Representatives who had just been sworn in to the House. They were talking about their goals as new Representatives in the 113th Congress and what they saw as the problems that existed in the 112th Congress.
One of those Representatives had an interesting perspective. He was Richard Nolan, a democrat representing Minnesota’s 8th Congressional district. Rep. Nolan had been a Representative from 1975-1981 but had then left politics for over 30 years to work in the private sector before deciding to return to Congress this year.
While the American government has always been a partisan and antagonistic organization, there has been a marked decline in bi-partisanship and collaboration since the period of Nolan’s first term in office.
Nolan spoke about the differences he saw in the House on either end of this 30 year span and noted that one of the biggest differences he saw was simply the amount of time members of Congress spent with each other.
A large part of this shift has been the fact that members of Congress are expected to spend more time at home in their districts instead of in Washington D.C. There is an idea that spending time in Washington ultimately corrupts politicians while spending time in Minnesota, for example, helps politicians keep the wishes of their people in mind.
While there may be some truth to this sentiment, the downside to spending significantly less time together means that there are far fewer opportunities for members of Congress to work with each other. When Nolan was first in Congress, members were expected to come to Washington for 48 out of 52 weeks of the year. Last year, members of Congress only spent 32 weeks in Washington.
In addition, the daily schedule of members of Congress even when they are in Washington has allowed less and less time for interacting with peers. While fundraising had formerly been a small part of the job of the Congressman, it now dominates half of their working days.
Nolan noted that even though people on the opposite sides of the aisle may disagree on 95% of issues, when they are forced to interact every day they start to find that 5% where they might be able to agree. It is in that 5% that members of Congress are able to make laws and get things done. The fact that the 112th Congress was the least productive in history in terms of number of laws passed indicates that the lack of interaction has had a direct impact on that ability to make things happen.
The U.S. Congress may be an anomalous organization in many ways but there are lessons all organizations can take from its problems. When people interact, they (eventually) find common ground. When people only interact with those who already agree with them (i.e. their constituents), they become less willing to think about issues from another point of view and compromise becomes increasingly less likely.
Does this play out in your organization?
Do you think interaction with others improves your work?
What about your organization nudges people towards interacting with others outside of their usual circle of contacts?