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The Tragedy of Us Vs. Them
Beware of this organizational culture destroyer
In my leadership masterclass, we review the seven competencies I think leaders need to be most effective. I’ll write more about my framework in-depth but for now, the high-level competencies are:
Be open and adaptable
Strategy and vision
The one that gets a lot of conversation is guiding culture. It’s an important one to get right, and easy to get wrong. When we get it wrong, it becomes an org smell. As a reminder, org smells are a surface indication that something is off at the organizational layer.
One way I’ve seen cultures go awry is when us vs them mentality sets in. Have you ever worked in an environment where two groups were at war with each other? Instead of teams, they feel like factions.
When this happens…
Skirmishes between groups escalate.
We become divided.
Binary thinking sets in. We believe we’re right and they’re wrong. We deify our side and demonize the other. We’re forced to take sides. If we stay in the middle we’re suspect. We’re deemed as someone who can’t be trusted. The spiral escalates. Soon we’re in free fall. The conflict, bickering, animosity, and adversarial nature of a divisive culture becomes exhausting. Anxiety and dread build. Collaboration grinds to a halt. Goals become out of reach.
The culture erodes becoming toxic and psychologically unsafe for everyone, even for leaders. I’ve worked in environments like this. Everyone loses, including leaders. Yes, even them. Trust me on this.
While the battle is often between leadership and the team that’s not always true. Sometimes the schism forms along functional lines like the common one between engineering and product. Another common one is product and engineering vs the go-to-market team. Wherever it may be, when us vs them schism forms, it becomes like a black hole, dragging all of us in.
Divisive cultures sink companies, damaging the people, the org, and the culture along the way.
Nobody wants to work in a toxic environment. So how did we get here?
Cultures rarely start this way, they evolve. Sometimes we’re so focused on reaching a tough objective that we become competitive with each other, and our once enjoyable culture slips away. The scaling phase of business also provides ripe conditions for negative culture shifts as we try to find our way. Other times there isn’t enough conscious focus on the culture at the senior leadership layer. Sometimes we have competing company goals or misaligned incentives; we don’t recognize it until it's grown out of control.
Maybe we took our culture for granted. We forgot that it’s a living, breathing entity that needs attention. Maybe we were never conscious of it in the first place. We got lucky with a positive culture that grew organically. We don’t know how to transform a negative one into a positive one.
Sometimes you can trace these things back to a moment when the trust was broken and there wasn’t a repair attempt. Taking responsibility, and admitting a mistake, especially in a public sphere can feel scary. We step over the rupture and publicly act as if nothing happened. Though this inclination is understandable, it a lack of acknowledgment of the pain, creates a secondary hurt that sets us down the path to a polarized team and workplace environment no one wants.
Whatever the cause, when us vs them mentality is brewing, we’ve stopped seeing each other as on the same team, moving towards the same goal. Unless addressed, it will decimate not only the cultures but the company.
We have to take an organizational perspective, prioritizing its well-being over any one person or area. We have to remember that we’re in this together — that when they win, we win. We have to find our way back to each other. We have to restore trust. When it’s embedded in our culture, we have to find the biggest sources of negativity and remove them — goals, incentives, policies…even people. While it shouldn’t be taken lightly, we must consider all of these factors.
It’s tempting to place all the responsibility on leaders. They do carry a fair amount of the weight. They do need to lead the way. However, the team plays a role too. What can the team do? Try to understand the complexity of business, that sometimes there are trade-offs we don’t like but are for the highest good. The team can help shift the culture by calling out us vs them thinking and over-the-line behavior. We can be open to seeing leaders not as bad people but as imperfect humans. When we do these things, we soften the rigid binary. This softening presents a chance to find commonalities and rebuild relationships and the culture.
We all play a role in creating a positive culture. When we all work together, we can reset our culture. Whatever your place in the org, never ignore this org smell.
PODCAST EPISODE OF THE WEEK
Being a leader, especially one of a startup can be more than a full time job. What happens when stressful things happen in your personal life? I talked with Kirk Fernandes, Co-Founder of Merit about how he handled this when three members of his family got sick. Our conversation covered why he started Merit, what he learned about asking for help, the importance of self-talk and why he recommends therapy to everyone.
Here’s a small snippet of our conversation.
You can read my conversation with Kirk here.
As always, thank you for your support of this substack and the leaders featured! You can read all of the past interviews and learn more about how Constellary supports companies and leaders here.
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