Us Versus Them
Employees today are by and large unhappy at work. Survey after survey shows mistrust, fear and stagnation reigning supreme. The outcomes are clear either in the high cost of turnover or, for those who choose to stay, it correlates directly with the greater stats showing dramatic increases in workplace-related mental health issues ranging from burnout and stress to severe anxiety and depression which ends up costing companies and greater society an estimated 300bn every year.
Buying them fruit baskets, installing a ping-pong table, appointing a Chief Happiness Officer to negotiate bulk purchases of FitBit’s are all at most, a bandaid and at worse, an expression of the collective eye-roll the board performs when they are reminded if they want to win like GAFA they have to “do people like GAFA” – shaking culture from the foundation is the answer.
Looking around big organizations today and leaving out the contentious topics of politics, race or gender, there are a myriad of largely unchallenged “Us Vs. Them” attitudes. There’s “Management vs The Rest”; “IT and Business”; lately and worryingly “Doers and Thinkers” “Old Timers vs. Millennials (or any other kind of new-comers)”; and even, maybe the worst one or all – “Company versus Customers”. Incidentally, they all have a flip side and the vice-versa is true but in the case of this last one, when customers have perceived the implied “versus” and decide to turn the coin, that spells the beginning of the end for the respective enterprise.
The only one that arguably is less detrimental and may make evolutionary sense is “Us versus Competitors” and even that is debatable in this new world of open sharing, collaborating and partnering to design better outcomes together.
So why shouldn’t we have any “versus”? Because the juxtaposition decimates empathy and goodwill and therefore honesty (what Amy Edmondson, the extraordinary Harvard professor and author behind the main study ever performed on the topic calls “candor” in this wonderful example from Pixar) so no Psychological Safety is being created and in the absence of Psychological Safety, no company can expect productive, innovative results.
One of the main suggestions to foster an open climate is creating “braintrusts” as in Amy’s analysis of Pixar’s success. These are groups with clear rules and guidelines that enable and foster honest feedback while carefully steering it away from negativity so as to ensure it is received constructively. Members of these groups who offer their opinions, do so with the best of intentions, lead with praise, communicate with empathy and are mindful of always speaking up in the interest of progress. Amy notes the similarity to the academic Peer Review groups but another parallel can be drawn to Amazon’s memo culture that encourages a thoughtful, verbose approach to assimilating, processing and debating information.
A few years ago, intrapreneurially mentorship was the trendy go-to PowerPoint slide for the next big transformative behavior in organizational design, but that format even when successful only encourages 1-on-1 and does little to encourage group collaboration and silos breaking.
Another sensible suggestion steams from how new ways of work such as Agile may decrease burnout rates and increase the overall happiness of the employees working in this fashion. This is, of course, hinging on the same need for Psychological Safety caveat. While breaking the organisation into project or product based teams may appear counter-intuitive as it seemingly creates another group and therefore another opportunity for “us vs. them”, it’s likely that we’ll see this not to be the case as the definition of a “silos” revolves around being closed and inflexible whereas the new Agile ways of work empower the opposite and bring about openness and unifying flexibility.
These versus mindsets and resulting silos are a symptom of larger organizational issues. While no direct studies exist, it’s likely that an analysis of successful organizations who generally do well on Psychological Safety will find a lesser degree of “Us vs. Them” by whatever measuring method they would apply than what is found in other companies.
The more hands-on an organization is willing to be in breaking silos, the more likely it is they will be effectively be breaking some of the implicit “versus” states that have enabled them. Frameworks exist from Cynefin to newer entrants with own network theories to help executives make sense of the organizational challenge at hand and technology is emerging that will further help build Psychological Safety and open communication but realistically the best indicator of their future success in spotting and mitigating against harmful “versus” stances is the leadership’s willingness to be completely open-hearted and open-minded and therefore obsessed with their people’s well-being.
“Us versus Them” silos are fearful, closed, hurting and hurtful, paralyzing, negative, and ultimately extremely dangerous to the health -and ultimate survival- of the organization. Winning teams are, by contrast, psychologically safe, truly open, purpose-driven, customer and learning obsessed, agile or at least flexible, empathic with a positive agenda, have and share knowledge, are brave and heavily emotionally invested.
In a fight where “Us” is the “Versus Silos” and “Them” is the “Safe, Happy and Open Agile Team” – which one are you willing to bet the survival of your company on?