them and us
How to Use Trust as a Competitive Advantage
From High Performance Teamwork training course
This article diagnoses one of the most vexing and expensive problems facing high performance teams; how a team composed of passionate contributors can end up mired in "them and us" team dynamics which, if untended, drain performance, profitability, trust and motivation from the team. The article is a chapter from Dr. Ciancutti's recently published book (by Contemporary Publishers, Chicago, Illinois, 2001) Built on Trust, Gaining Competitive Advantage In Any Organization.
You Have A Choice
"Culture" is what is cool, what is accepted, spoken or just understood. When smoking cigarettes was cool in the USA, for instance, lots more people smoked than do today. In the 50's and 60's, smoking was so cool you couldn't get the right mate without smoking, or you weren't "liberated." In the mid-eighties, smoking started becoming not so cool, and smoking decreased dramatically. But in the meantime, from the time we knew smoking cigarettes caused emphysema, fatal heart disease and myriad kinds of cancer (in the early 50's) to the mid-eighties, millions of us continued smoking because it was cool.
People were dying in droves to be cool.
The same happens in our teams and organizations. Most organizations have a "Random Culture" when it comes to closure, commitment and cross-functional coordination. What is cool, what is accepted behavior, is not top-down, bottom-up driven, and in fact is not driven at all. Even if leadership has provided a value statement or guidelines list in these areas, it has not provided training and modeling to facilitate enough change in behavior so that a critical mass of the entire workforce is forming a true "Leadership Culture."
Meaning that interactions sometimes close and sometimes do not.
In a passionate, highly motivated organization, lack of closure leads to them and us dynamics, across functions, between layers of management, across geographical divides, after mergers and acquisitions, between the old guard and the new.
The following article summarizes the dynamics, the costs and the performance obstacles that result from neglecting culture.
"Them-and-us" conflicts happen in every team: at work, at home, in our intimate relationships, in government, and between nations. But the teams that rise above being adequate to become truly great have all eliminated this condition.
A them-and-us condition involves the presence of two or more adversarial or disconnected elements in the team. Them-and-us is not a product of imagined maliciousness of individuals, but a natural group phenomenon in teams. Common them-and-us examples include Labor versus Management, Sales versus Operations, Marketing versus Engineering, the Home Office versus the Field, Development versus Test, Building A versus Building B.
Where them-and-us is virulent, teamwork deteriorates into warring feudal tribes. And they will remain in this state until a constitution is formed that binds them together into a nation. In the history of nations, this transition was delayed until a lead tribe emerged with the power and resolution to force this integration. In corporations, the leadership is already in place, at least formally, and the Trust Model merely awaits its own constitutional convention. Hence, teams do not have to endure the long wait for the right conditions to emerge accidentally, and them-and-us need not remain an obstacle to high performance.
If you walk into an organization in the advanced stages of them-and-us, you might guess at first that people just don't care. And if you investigate how the team got to the current state, you will find a familiar pattern of deterioration. This team, like most, started off with good intentions all around. Over time an intermittent antagonistic atmosphere developed. Opposition grew, and magnetic dipoles, rather than lining up true north together, started wandering all over the compass. Full-tilt momentum faded and people seemed to wander off, their hearts and minds elsewhere. Not everyone volunteered their best ideas or voiced honest differences of opinion. Meetings became tedious. Only a crisis seemed to energize the team, and then only temporarily. Territoriality and credit-hogging increased. Buzzing became commonplace. Tired of the stress, morale packed its bags and headed south. This descent is so automatic, so fateful, so commonplace, that we are tempted to conclude that this is inevitable destiny. Teams succumb to entropy, wind down, wear out. To fix it, bring in new troops, fresh meat, and the next victim. We have created disposable teams.
In the course of his job, Arky at times addresses special business school classes peopled with young, fast track individuals from organizations worldwide. Often, these intelligent, competent people have the most trouble imagining even trying to eliminate them-and-us. After all, they ask from experience, doesn't the way up the ladder mean choosing the "right side" early in one's career, then winning the war?
The them-and-us outcome is neither inevitable, nor even momentarily necessary. While many teams are not even aware of the possibility of an alternative, there certainly is one. Insight begins with an observation that may appear at first glance to be counterintuitive:
Folk Theorem. Them-and-us dynamics occur only when people care about the outcome of their work.
If people didn't care about their work, they would be indifferent to events. The passions ignited in traditional them-and-us encounters originate in the passion about outcome. People join a them-and-us condition because they see it as the most immediately accessible avenue out of their frustration. In fact,
Folk Theorem. The greater the passion, the more fertile the ground for them-and-us dynamics.
And now for the good news,
Folk Theorem. The greater the passion, the more able the organization is to convert them-and-us dynamics to highest performance.
This is good news indeed! It is actually easy to train people in one intensive day to begin converting them-and-us dynamics. It is very, very difficult to teach passion. Organizations and teams possessing passion are both vulnerable to higher frustration and positioned for highest performance.
Them-and-us arises from a failure to reach closure. Lack of closure means that previous service cycles are not set up correctly or not worked correctly. In either case, there is no possibility to win. Lack of winning frustrates the natural urge of the team members to make a contribution. The dissonance between the individual desire to see something happen and the collective inability to actualize progress generates muck, again in proportion to the intensity of the desire. For those of us going through organization-as-machine withdrawal, lack of closure is sand in the gears.
Failure to reach closure is the real source of despair often felt in the workplace. The source of despair is often attributed to leadership, and in a sense it is leadership that is responsible. But we will show that lack of closure also arises from the collective habits of the team members. There is no enemy, but lots of victims. To overcome them-and-us, we all need to go back to school on closure.
Circumstances That Invite Them-and-Us
Unless an organization has committed to eliminating them-and-us through, for instance, a Trust Model process, various parts of the workforce will participate in buzzing and territoriality activities at the expense of closing important interactions. Nevertheless, there are circumstances that inadvertently invite or exacerbate this negative activity.
For example, them-and-us dynamics are likely in successful, fast-growing organizations. Here parts of the organization are tempted to allow high activity to obscure the real priorities of communication, coordination and closure. "We don't have time." In situations like these, success can actually be the reason for cyclical downturns, as busy-ness becomes the justification for dodging vital communication challenges.
When priorities, goals or incentives appear to be different, or in conflict, between functions or departments, the ground is fertile for them-and-us dynamics. Classic examples abound: sales, intent on highest volume of business and compensated by percentages, silently clashes with engineering, struggling with development difficulties and intent on highest quality. Both functions are motivated positively, both are passionate, and both are participating in activity destructive to overall purpose, success, and customer satisfaction.
Structure can add to the problem. One established hi-tech company in Silicon Valley depended on "recipe" trade secrets - special processes unique to the company to provide competitive advantage. R&D was the designated keeper of the recipes. Policy dictated that nobody would know everything; policy even dictated that nobody would know that nobody would know everything. R&D was thereby set up on a stratospheric pedestal, and them-and-us became virulent. R&D versus Manufacturing, R&D versus Marketing, R&D versus Sales, R&D versus R&D, even R&D versus the customer.
Without the benefit of the superior intelligence of the fully connected team, the company was not able to exploit the advantages of its recipes to the fullest, and slowly lost competitive position. Eventually the fear of losing market share exceeded the fear of losing secrets, and the CEO decided to do something about it. He decided, fundamentally, to move the company from a fear-based culture to one based on trust.
He held a meeting, told the truth, and asked for help.
The effect was electric. Everyone could finally see the origin of the them-and-us tensions they had all been experiencing, which validated feelings they had not always even fully articulated. Within a short period of time, the team R&D itself devised ways to share ideas without compromising confidentiality, which led to creative means to leverage the assets they already had. A particular problem they resolved was introduction of new employeesa major concern for securitywithout risk. The R&D team embraced process for closure (see Part III and How to Reach Closure). Performance soared.
While fear of losing market share was the ultimate motivation for changing their approach, management in retrospect recognized that they could have acted several years earlier, achieving the same outcome with much less effort.
Other circumstances that invite or reinforce them-and-us dynamics include unproductive bureaucracy, where the sheer boredom of lots of activity and little closure can encourage buzzing. Distance and time zone differences can add to the problem by supplying enough logistical difficulty to closure to obscure the real cause of non-closure: procrastination and avoidance of anticipated discomfort. An intense "political" atmosphere, for instance in academic environments, where counting favors and the fear of becoming indebted to the "wrong" person or department, can justify them-and-us.
Recent mergers and acquisitions can create prime conditions for them-and-us. When these changes are not properly managed, for instance with a superordinate set of Trust Model principles, people are prone to fill the vacuum with fears of losing position, comfortable relationships or territory. The result can be paralysis at exactly the wrong time. Even much later, when "parenthood" has seemingly been established but cultures have not been consciously integrated, people often harbor lingering suspicion and worries about performance and/or interference.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous circumstance inviting a priori them-and-us dynamics concerns authority. Subordinate-supervisor relationships are particularly susceptible. For many, authority itself unconsciously means both power and fear even before the first encounter.
Institutional authority has extraordinary power. Too often people use the power of their position to intimidate others in the workplace. And conversely, too often employees place leaders on "pedestals of legitimacy" and feel intimidated out of being themselves. So we have whispers when leaders are nearby, conversations halted prematurely when management is seen approaching, lack of candor around Human Resources.
To be effective in authority, leaders must have confidence, but also must not appear to revel in the power of their position. When the personality of the leader overshadows the role they must play, subordinates often feel threatened or intimidated. Then employees feel at risk and trust is lost.
Folk Theorem. While it is important to address circumstances such as structure or culture integration, the circumstances never cause them-and-us. We do.
In fact . . .
Folk Theorem. All of us at times inadvertently invite people to stop short of closure with us by using habitual styles and attitudes.
These habitual styles and attitudes invite people to "put you up on a pedestal," where communication is hampered before it begins. Pedestal conditions occur in all directions throughout the organizational chart, again generated by unconsciously expressed style.
See if you recognize any of these . . .
The Always Decisive Style. This style often springs from some early career training where decisiveness was valued. The eager student immediately bought the idea and, in its first application, decided then and there that effective leaders are never indecisive. Now, years later, he always seems sure of what he is doing, always appears decisive, never shows a crack. He feels it is a mortal sin to show uncertainty to the people he is supervising, or to look weak by asking his subordinates for help. Being human, however, he actually is unsure of himself as often as anyone else. Because he doesn't show it, the people who have the information that would help him resolve his doubt do not give it to him or give it to him late.
The Always Decisive Style leads to disconnection from the combined wisdom of the team. Staying connected and honoring doubt, a sometimes uncomfortable posture in this macho world, joins together the otherwise compartmentalized thoughts of the team to a much greater outcome. It may be necessary to challenge decisiveness in the interest of greater team outcome, when decisions emerge too quickly, without opportunity for buy-in by the participants. Respectfully challenging decisiveness is a group invitation to honor doubt properly.
The Too Busy Style. This style belongs to the ambitious and consequently busy, but also to those that decided long ago it was important to appear busy. The Too Busy Style perfects ways of looking very busy to impress coworkers that a great deal is being accomplished. It also sometimes seems that the too-busy types are running fast enough so that their coworker gnats have no chance to land on their skin and cause irritation. Over time, the too-busy type forgets how he came to be this way, but he still looks busy most of the time.
Too-busy can also look like a mercenary soldier dug in behind his desk just waiting for someone to cross the demilitarized zone of his office committing the offense of interrupting him. His only interest in the company open door policy is to get an earlier bead on his next victim prior to entering his office.
Everybody around too-busy types feels this person is too busy to be bothered with their little problem. They then let the problem grows until it is big enough to warrant real attention. The people around the too-busy person have therefore bought the act, thereby placing the current project in a reactive rather than proactive mode. Here again lack of communication via this particular condition puts the too-busy agenda above that of the team, and everybody is now in a position to lose.
The Too Nice Style. The antecedents of the Too Nice Style are manifold and much of the population suffers from it. It may be a flag waved in surrender: "You don't bite me and I won't bite you." Or it may be a smiling keeper standing before a caged beast waiting to pounce under provocation. We tend to buy into the Too Nice Style easily since nice is, well, nice. But oily assurances and conflicting promises eventually catch up, as too-nice gathers a reputation with some that no matter what he says or promises, or how nice he seems to be, nothing really gets finished.
The Mood. Some people are dominated by their moods, and the calculation of the day is whether or not it is safe to approach him about some touchy issue. Freedom from mood swings is a sign of psychological maturity and we would expect to find a spectrum of competence in the skill in the average workplace. A mood is like a possession, and when we are in one, we are no longer our real self. The Indian goddess for mood is Maya, and her deity suggests moods have an archetypal aspect with an autonomous, outside-of-us quality. From the perspective of productivity, mood possession places this inner condition above the principles of the team, and once again closure is compromised.
A close relative to the Mood is the Optimist who exudes energy and enthusiasm even when the water is over the bridge. The Optimist is invested in the notion that attitude influences outcome, and she is right. Sometimes, though, the less buoyant of us have a problem staring into that kind of bright light.
The Grump. Compared to the Mood, the Grump has an additional virtue: absolute predictability. You know talking with this person ain't gonna be fun and you are familiar with all the back roads in the building avoiding proximity to his workspace. In your early encounters with this person, you attempted cheerfulness arising as a natural urge to compensate the gloom you sensed. It didn't work and you know better than to wave that red flag again. So you just avoid going through that part of the pasture.
The Talker. You prefer the fast-food model of communication, where you get in line, place your request, get what you want, and move along. He thinks more in terms of English Tea time. While you may wish to discuss a particular business issue, you are in fact in for a long dissertation on the past glories of his particular empire, and you would just as soon skip the meeting than go through that again.
The Know-It-All. Armed to the teeth with data and conclusions, she ends up by overwhelming her teammates into silence about their own opinions, ideas, questions, and concerns. This is another "leader" afraid to appear weak by asking her team for help. The results are less collaboration, less creative intelligence, more re-work.
The Tower of Babel. You begin a conversation and suddenly feel as if you are being hosed down with a stream of alphabet soup. Where you expect plain text, instead acronyms, jargon, technical terminology, and strange and foreign incantations fill the air. It is the modern day equivalent of speaking in tongues, and you start to go look for a translator, but give up in light of the effort involved.
Medusa. You begin the conversation and you soon realize the silence from the other side is not the constructive version designed to provide space and opportunity to hear your views, but rather a silent meditation on the multitudinous ways in which you were stupid enough to bring up the subject in the first place. Your thoughts jangle, your words fail you, and suddenly you realize you are turning to stone. Better call home, 'cause you're gonna be late.
Attitudes and styles like these don't cause people to communicate incompletely, rather they invite non-closure. Even in the face of the most daunting style, some will communicate effectively, thus becoming productivity exceptions. But many will unconsciously accept the invitation to silence, or to appeasement, thus reinforcing their own habits of non-closure. In these cases, individual agendas in the form of unconscious acceptance of those invitations are taking precedence over the overall business agenda. Knee-jerk habit, generating them-and-us dynamics and their consequences run this part of the organization.
Being able to diagnose these dynamics in their early stages, then naming it openly, diminishes their power. There are always early clues to them-and-us, beginning with our own recognition that closure has not occurred in an important interaction cycle. If you are walking around feeling that people are not telling you how they really feel, you are probably right. Which intuition brings up.
Folk Theorem. We often automatically assume we know what the other person is thinking, and 2) we never know until he tells us.
Barring earliest recognition, the next sign that them-and-us dynamics are growing will be the Coffee Room Buzz.
The Genesis of Buzz Most employees don't know a lot about getting closure. Instead, they usually talk over a troublesome situation with a friend. That conversation can be a brainstorming session about how to get closure or it can constitute the beginning of the buzz. Hence . . .
Folk Theorem. All communication in the business organization boils down to either buzzing or closing.
Typically, conversation like these will involve commiserating and complaining about the situation. This puts the power to obtain closure into the friend's hands. If the friend were trained and aware, he could help the situation by guiding the person toward closure. But most often, the friend isn't thinking about how to help. Instead, the Situation reminds him of his own non-closure frustrations. Thus he passes on his version to a third party, and the cycle continues. This then results in a clique-type mentality, the beginnings of them-and-us.
Meanwhile, the person not getting closed with finds himself confiding more and more with "equals" and peers, with those who "understand" his concerns: a kind of management by "comfort." This can result in function, or even leadership, isolation, where people confide only in those considered near equals. This makes for the second clique in the organization, while the first buzzes away in the coffee room. For want of closure, the connected organization is lost.
Consequences Of Them-and-Us
Common as this them-and-us condition is, its disadvantages can be devastating to team motivation. The first casualty will be you. Your stress level will build and your motivation will erode. You are suddenly having less fun or no fun at all. And the more you care, the more you suffer from not being able to reach closure.
Quality will suffer. When situations don't get to closure, people internalize the reasons into excuses: 'how can we be expected to lead the company's technology when senior management isn't investing, caring, thinking, communicating, allocating, hiring, or whatever. Thus quality diminishes due to internal mechanisms, while we spend billions tracking the problem rather than addressing it.
There are other consequences resulting from them-and-us. When people commiserate, they communicate, bond and create camaraderie. These are basic human needs. By buzzing, we get some of our needs met. This can feel like a kind of "lifeboat" teamwork, but it is not high performance activity because there is no common vision, no bought-into destination. Thus buzzing can become the glue that holds people together. When one problem goes away, another problem has to take its place in order to fill the "needs" gap. If a new problem doesn't come along, people will make one up or inflate a smaller problem. This then becomes a problem-oriented dynamic, not a vision-oriented one. People become focussed on reacting to problems, rather than proactively leading.
Another consequence is that the dynamic becomes crisis-driven. Problems don't get recognized until enough people see the problem and agree on what it is. By the time that happens, it is usually close to the crisis stage and too late for accurate diagnosis and precise action.
Finally, them-and-us is a fear-driven dynamic. It has nothing to do with the marketplace, with people being genuinely busy or with any other reality. People are always balanced between their desire to contribute and their fear about their ability to do it. Them-and-us dynamics are extremely contagious, tilting the balance toward the fear and away from extraordinary service. And these dynamics are typically advancing while we spend inordinate resources measuring our customers' satisfaction rather than ensuring it.
In summary, persistent them-and-us dynamics result in decreased closure, increased cycle time, a reactive instead of proactive approach, an obstacle-based rather than a vision-based attitude, unhappy customers and a pervasive atmosphere of fear rather than consistent service. Though the foundation of them-and-us dynamics is usually positive (one has to care about one's job), the consequences are devastating.
Lew Platt, CEO of Hewlett-Packard, says the job of the CEO is to "manage the white spaces on the organization chart." The white spaces are the home of them-and-us, the organization's No-Man's-Land. It is also where the muck is, whitewashed on our organization charts so as to be presentable to polite company. A framework for managing the white spaces can start with what is the most important, and at the same time the most counterintuitive, aspect of them-and-us:
Folk Theorem. The Fundamental Folk Theorem of Competitive Advantage. The greatest prospective opportunities for competitive advantage arise from the most virulent current instances of them-and-us in the organization.
We already know that muck, due to its dual nature, is a potential source of gold under the appropriate transformational process. This dual nature of muck then suggests that the dissonance created by them-and-us conditions might lead us to look again for the opportunities that lie therein.
Some of the most important sources of competitive advantage have to do with cross-functional coordination. With the a priori them-and-us condition between different functional groups, developing technique for cross-functional coordination is an instance of going into the them-and-us symptom, rather than avoiding it, to find its cure.
One example is "concurrent engineering" where engineering and manufacturing work together from the outset in the product development process to ensure that the resulting product is manufacturable as well as meeting its functional requirements. Engineering and manufacturing traditionally ran in sequence, with engineering creating the product and then tossing it over the wall to manufacturing to figure out how to build it. Of course, this meant that engineering could create products willy-nilly without worrying about how to build them, and manufacturing ground its teeth down over the "stupidity" of the resulting designs. The resulting dysfunctional engineering-manufacturing relationship has been commemorated in humor, sarcasm, and plain animosity down through the years. The insight of concurrent engineering was to run these functions in parallel in the development process and force resolution of the them-and-us conflicts early.
Another example, inspired by concurrent engineering, is "concurrent marketing," where marketing and sales work together to "manufacture" sales. The same pattern applies here. Marketing would create material that sales found useless in real-world engagements with prospective customers, and the lovingly generated company presentations with their artistic logos and carefully crafted sound bites would end up in the shredder replaced by versions hastily developed in the field that had some chance of actually inspiring a prospect to consider a purchase. Sales traditionally sees marketing as where the rubber meets the sky, while their own focus is downward on the street. The objective of on current marketing is to force parallel collaboration of marketing and sales to increase both speed and quality of the sales process.
A third example, one that generalizes this collaboration across all functions in the product development process, is highly empowered strong-form cross-functional teams. Here representatives from marketing, sales, QA, support, manufacturing, finance, etc. sit on the product development team throughout the entire development process, and management stays the hell out of the way. This is them-and-them-and-them-and-us. Wheelwright and others suggests that strong-form cross-functional teams are the most effective form of product development organization, landing intuitively on an organizational approach designed to harvest the tensions inherent in the a priori cross-functional them-and-us conditions.
While effective to some degree, all of these applications are less than basic. By identifying the underlying phenomena of them-and-us, and by attempting to grasp muck's paradoxical nature, we have a more fundamental basis for discovering and developing sources of competitive advantage. These spot instances of these business trends can be viewed as corollaries of this more general principle. There are in fact an infinite number of possible ways to gain competitive advantage by harvesting the tension in them-and-us. Rather than conflicts to avoid, them-and-us conflicts are bountiful opportunities for developing increased intelligence. Meanwhile the less perceptive competition is taking the "easier," and ultimately far less fruitful, path of avoiding the associated discomfort of them-and-us phenomena, and continuing to be their victim.
As is the case with virtually all of the key obstacles to high performance, the first step is simply to recognize the existence of the obstacle. This takes us halfway to the solution. Naming these obstacles objectifies them, and objectifying them creates a new space between us and the condition, and creating a space allows us to treat them consciously, and treating them consciously leads to increased competence and, over time, master. We will address detailed methods for resolving them-and-us in Part III.
Ultimately the Trust Model process-creation, buy-in and maintenance-provides a complete and sustaining solution to them-and-us conditions. It is not possible to tell the truth, have direct and open communication, reach closure and honor commitments while remaining stuck in a them-and-us condition. The Trust Model, with its superordinate position, has the power to overcome the eccentric, obstructing influence of any one person. And understanding the nature of them-and-us, and being able to anticipate it before it becomes a problem, facilitates closure even further.
If you enjoyed this article, there is another article in the Library section entitled "Converting Risk Aversion." Click here for that article.
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