An American poet once wrote that ‘Good fences make good neighbours‘. In the corporate environment, the exact opposite is true. The boundaries we construct between teams actually damage relationships.
Us and Them
Any business larger than a start-up will be composed of groups of people, each performing a distinct job. These groups may be called teams, divisions, sections or task groups. The words don’t matter. The important thing is that they are pockets of human beings, gathered together to do a certain thing.
These groups are positive in many ways. They provide employees with support and a sense of belonging. They concentrate expertise and knowledge. They are the logical building blocks of corporate hierarchy. Unfortunately, they have a drawback. When you create a team, you build a fence. Everything inside that fence is us, everything outside is them.
War at the borders
Teams can find themselves in a state of cold war. The spaces between them are like hostile borders. The lines of communication are tenuous and strained. Why is this? More often than not, it is the inevitable result of misaligned goals. Team A wants something that Team B cannot provide without breaking rules. Division C needs something quickly that Division D has to make slowly. Section 1 needs approval from Section 2, who are understaffed and stressed. The groups are driven to conflict by circumstance and mismatched business needs. Inevitably, there are casualties. People get hurt. Grievances, written warnings, hushed departures. Employees who spend their careers secretly at war.
The root of this problem is understanding, or rather the lack of it. Relationships between team members are stronger than non-team members. This makes perfect sense. When you work in a group, you have more time to bond. You suffer through the same meetings. You swap personal histories. You construct a shared vision. You spend your time in the same building, sometimes the same room. Because of these shared experiences, you understand each other. Any minor disagreements are seen through the lens of your shared history. You assume goodwill. This is not true of non-group members, who might need (because of their role) to obstruct you from time to time, to get in way, to say No. When goals collide, the understanding isn’t there. This is the soil in which problems grow.
Friction between groups is a difficult nut to crack. Tribalism seems to be baked into us. But you are certainly not powerless. You can alter your own attitudes, if you really want to. Here are three suggestions:
- Police yourself. Stop being negative about other teams, or members of other teams. No more jokes. No more type casting. No more gossip. Try to change the underlying patterns. You may find this difficult initially. It’s hard to put down old ideas.
- Proximity. Try shared projects, shadowing, secondments, anything that gets you in the same room as the other group. Try to break it down into individuals. It is harder to be annoyed at someone when you know the names of their kids.
- Compassion. When you really, really need something, and that person is holding you up again, try to step back from the brink. Take a breath. Perhaps that person is unwell, upset, run off their feet. We cannot know the hidden lives of others.
Improve inter-group relationships and you will improve the business. This is obvious, so obvious that it does not really deserve an article. And yet it often gets ignored. In the rush of deadlines, targets, goals and sprints, we can all fall into the trap of us and them. We can all participate in the grumbling narrative of office dispute. But you can make a difference. You can try to change. We can’t tear down all the fences just yet. But maybe we can make a few doors.
The line of poetry in the introduction is taken from ‘Mending Wall’ by Robert Frost, published in the collection ‘North of Boston’ in 1914.
(Published on LinkedIn 03/07/2018)