Complexity thrives in newsrooms.
As a former newspaper reporter, I should know.
When you’re up against a hard deadline fact-checking information from three sources who are all telling you different things while an impatient editor raises an eyebrow at you just as the reporter in the neighboring cubicle starts boasting loudly over his lone accomplishments covering a series of weather-related calamites that you helped him cover, complexity rears its ugly head and gives you a really warm hug.
We all encounter complexity every day everywhere we go. It’s the “nonlinear, turbulent, and dynamic” that crops up around us, according to systems thinker Donella H. Meadows. In newsrooms, however, where human nature and human dynamics take centerstage every day, complexity and its entanglements are stronger than the Incredible Hulk on steroids.
Through my studies at Saybrook, I’ve learned that how newsroom inhabitants view complexity shapes complexity’s evolvement. If it’s viewed positively or as a challenge to grow, team work becomes stronger. If misperceptions arise, trouble strikes.
As human beings, we’re generally “attracted to straight lines and not curves, to whole numbers and not fractions, to uniformity and not diversity, and to certainties and not mystery,” according to Meadows. So when we’re hit with complexity, we turn inward and limit ourselves to our personal frame of reference. We forget or fail to acknowledge the other people affected by the complex situation before us and default to an us-versus-them perspective. And once that happens, disagreements and bickering surface.
I noticed this in April when I engaged a discussion on workplace complexity with a former editor of mine for a class assignment.
I worked for him during my time freelancing for The Miami Herald in South Florida almost a decade ago when I was still an undergraduate, journalism student. As part of my Saybrook assignment, I asked him a series of questions related to complexity that I had to answer too. The questions asked him to define the nature of complexity in his work life, identify the opposing forces creating it, explain how it feels to live within these forces, describe any strategies he’s developed to deal with the tension created by these forces, and explain how dealing with complexity has helped him personally and professionally navigate the broader, complex world.
When my former editor—who is nearing age 70 and has been in the journalism industry for more than 30 years (before I was born)—sent me his responses, I compared his answers to mine and saw just how different we both perceived newsroom complexity, which may have also affected our working relationships in the newsroom.
Where he saw newsroom complexity as a task-oriented function that includes the hiring of freelance writers and editing many articles daily, I saw it as a function of the newsroom pecking-order and the intricate, dynamic network of relationships that exist in the workplace.
To me, the opposing forces that cause tension in the newsroom environment involve dueling egos and unyielding conviction. “Tact and keeping my nose to the grindstone,” I wrote in my response, are the only ways to survive. My former editor disagreed. He defined the opposing forces as tight financial conditions and the lack of trained and experienced journalists, which strains the quality of the newspaper’s content.
Even though we both agreed that compliance and dealing with it are the ways to cope with the tension of newsroom complexity, we disagreed on how newsroom complexity gets integrated into daily life. As a manager, my former editor said newsroom complexity has helped him develop skills, experience, and competence geared more toward teams and team-building. As a lowly reporter struggling to stand out among other lowly reporters with larger egos than mine, I saw newsroom complexity as a constant challenge to prove my worth in all spheres of my life.
As I compared our responses, I let my mind drift back to my days in the newsroom with him and remembered how he always pointed out my vulnerabilities—and not in the most sensitive manner—so I could see them, toughen up, and correct them. I remembered rising up to the challenge each time because I never liked being perceived as weak or less skilled than other reporters who’d spend the day bragging about themselves. I wanted to be equal and just as good.
The Saybrook assignment helped me see that I didn’t understand him or his focus and he didn’t understand me or my perceptions, which became misperceptions over time.
Through this assignment, I was able to understand the discrepancies that existed between us—discrepancies that generally exist between all reporters and editors as well as employees and managers.
Looking back, if I had dropped my misperceptions about my former editor’s expectations, complexity would have still been as buff as the Incredible Hulk… without the syringe.