Between my own consulting and online teaching of MBA students all over the world, I have been fortunate to study the cultures of literally thousands of organizations: large and small, profit and not for profit, government, and NGOs.
Once I get past the window dressing of how these organizations wish to appear to the outside world, I find some hurtful things that are common. One of the most frequent problems is a kind of “we versus they” thinking between the management levels and the workers. This article examines why this symptom is so common and suggests eight ways to mitigate the problem.
The fundamental cause of what I call the “two sides mentality” is a lack of true alignment. Most organizations have invested big bucks into developing a “strategy,” which includes things like Values, Vision, Mission, Purpose, Key Result Areas, Tactics, and Measures. These essential elements are usually developed by small teams of managers who cloister themselves away in a hotel or something for a few days to bang out the strategy.
Then, as the ink is drying on the pages, the discussion turns to how this brilliant plan is going to be communicated to the mass of workers in order to get “buy in” from the people “in the trenches.” Eventually there is a “roll out” of the information which inevitably is communicated BY the managers TO the workers. Notice the hackneyed expressions I used above are the actual words that are used, even today in the real world – amazing! If you listen, you will hear them.
The presentation is given to half-asleep people who are sitting in neat rows trying not to yawn. The data dump is followed by a few polite questions, and then everybody files out of the conference room and goes to lunch. The managers meet in their own dining space and congratulate themselves on clarifying the strategy and getting buy-in from the workers.
In reality, what happened is that the managers illustrated, once again, that they are clueless about how the culture is created by their actions, not their words. Their attempt to get everybody “on the same page” only served to drive the wedge between the management team and the people doing the work deeper. How is it possible for managers to miss the reality that they are doing the same thing hoping for a different result?
The fact that some organizations actually do achieve true alignment of purpose throughout the organization (my personal estimate is less than 20% do) gives me hope that not only is it possible, but with excellent leadership it is easier and faster than the conventional route. Organizations that achieve true alignment always blow away groups that have fractured perspectives.
In their book “Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations,” Bob and Gregg Vanourek have a whole chapter on alignment. It is an excellent model. One key point they make is that the elements of the strategy need to be developed collaboratively. Great leaders know that for people to truly embrace a concept, they must put their fingerprints on it while it is being developed. The authors write about how the alignment is a kind of cascade rather than a lay on. The principles and information are generated organically and developed carefully by the whole team over time.
The collaborative process allows all people in the organization to feel true ownership of the plan, which becomes the foundation for alignment. It is alignment that erases the feeling of one side versus the other, because we all understand what we are trying to do and are pulling in the same direction. So how can leaders create this kind of culture? Here are eight ideas that can help any organization reduce the “we versus they” thinking and thereby obtain the full energy that is latent in the entire team.
1. Leaders need to listen more
In the urgency to survive and the reality of a flat world, it is a real challenge to make the effort and take the time to engage people at all levels about the future direction. Of primary importance, it is necessary to agree upon a set of values that the entire team not only adopts but pledges 100% to live by, even when it is difficult. It is not enough to simply state the values. For true alignment, all of the values must be demonstrated by all people all the time.
Clarifying a compelling vision of the future is equally vital. If every person in the organization feels that he or she is going to be much better off once the vision is achieved, you have a powerful force multiplier for alignment.
2. Involve everyone in identifying the direction
As ideas are put forth, look for common themes and keep working the information into a model where each person feels ownership. Once people realize they are actually part of the generation process, they will be much more inclined to embrace the final product. When one part of the strategy seems impossible, don’t discard it. Rather, examine the blockage and get creative with a way to accomplish it anyway in an ethical, values-based way.
3. Don’t say things you cannot do
So often I see a values plaque in the lobby of a company indicating “People are our most important asset,” only to find the managers in the back conference room trying to figure out details of the impending downsizing. Once a stated value reveals managerial hypocrisy, it does more harm than good to put it on the plaque. It fosters a “They say it, but they don’t mean it” mentality that enables “us versus them” and works against the alignment.
4. Don’t “Roll Out” the “Program”
I have found that having a big roll out program is often the kiss of death. Employees smell a lay-on coming a mile away, and they will go to the meeting with earplugs firmly inserted. A roll out meeting may allow managers to check the box called “communicate” but it does little to build alignment. Instead of the big fanfare, share the information at small family groups with good opportunity for dialog, and indicate this was derived by all of us. Stress that the information on the strategy is how we intend to conduct ourselves from now on. Repeat that information at every possible point and illustrate it when decisions are based on it. For example, a manager might say, “We have recommended this vendor as the supplier for our parts because their demonstrated integrity matches our own value of integrity.”
5. Be willing to admit mistakes
In changing a culture, there will be small, or sometimes big, mistakes made along the way. The world is a messy place, and it is impossible to reach perfection. But, as Vince Lombardi once said, “If we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” When managers are willing to admit they made a mistake along the way, it demonstrates to people they are sincere about the culture change. Also when managers admit their vulnerability and do not punish people for pointing out apparent inconsistencies, it builds higher trust because it reduces fear in the workplace. Lower fear means less opportunity for “we versus they” thinking.
6. Build and value trust
Trust becomes the glue that holds the whole organization together in good times and in difficult times. The culture of any organization is a reflection of the behaviors of the senior leaders more than any other single factor. If the culture is split so the workers do not trust management, then every initiative, strategy, and outcome will be compromised. Leaders need to understand and step up to this incredible challenge. True alignment requires the attention and effort of everyone on the team, but the leaders set the tone and model the way.
7. Don’t get derailed by short term thinking
The daily and monthly pressures of any business will test the resolve of the team. In his program “Life is a Journey,” Brian Tracy points out that “obstacles are not put there to obstruct but to instruct.” The whole team needs to learn from the challenges and focus on the long term vision to navigate the speed bumps with grace. The very reason for having a strategy in the first place is to focus energy on the big picture when the vicissitudes of the real world try to blow us off course.
8. Celebrate the small wins as well as the big ones
The atmosphere can be moved from surviving an oppressive string of burdensome crosses to bear to one of hitting the tops of the waves as we water ski to victory. The trick is to recognize and appreciate all of the good things that are going on. Teach people that the reinforcement should come from all levels, not just the managers. Once the workers start practicing reinforcement of others, magic things begin to happen.
There are numerous other ideas and helpful tips that can add to the success of the team. The main point of this article is that it is possible to create real alignment where everyone in the organization is truly excited about what is being accomplished, and that culture eliminates the “we versus they” mentality between workers and managers. I wish more organizations could experience the fantastic boost to performance and the true joy of working in such an environment. It all rests on the quality of leaders to create that kind of culture.
Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow, Inc. an organization dedicated to growing leaders. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 585-392-7763. Website http://www.leadergrow.com BLOG http://www.thetrustambassador.com He is author of the following books: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind, and Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change.