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Them and Us: The Seeds of Failure

David Straker


There is a force in many organizations, both private and public, that divides people into them and us and so creates the seeds of organizational failure. This force also acts on governments and nations and underlies many historical revolutions.

Vertical division: Silos and Empires

A common complaint in companies is that people in different departments not only have little understanding of one another but that they have a tendency to do battle with one another. The immediate effect of this is that overall performance drops as people replace real, value-adding work with attacking others and defending their own territory. This can be seen in endless meetings, where many person-hours are lost in fruitless debate, and 'not my problem' attitudes of non-collaboration.

A common cause of inter-group strife is that processes operate horizontally, flowing across departmental boundaries, while power enacts vertically, down the hierarchical management structure. When people are supposed to collaborate with others at the same level elsewhere, their eyes are mostly turned upwards as they prioritize their actions to first please the whim of their managers. Support functions such as HR and IT can also acquire lives of their own and become more of a hindrance than a help.

Another cause of vertical division is the battle for resource. There is always too little money and too few people with required skills. As a result, managers snd individuals often have to fight for the resource to do their jobs. Seduced by power, some managers also seek to build their own little empires, gaining control over as many people and associated resources as possible. They then sit as lords and fight wars with other managers in attack or defending their territory.

Horizontal division: Managers and Workers

Another division and perhaps the most common is between manager and 'worker', a name that betrays the mentality if not the practice. European history has laid a broad Western cultural foundation in the principle of a land-owning aristocracy and a peasantry who were little more than servants. Globally, there is a common principle of a class system that keeps people in their place with hierarchical controls and a status-oriented culture points to this division to be of evolutionary benefit. After all, if you are the boss you can more easily spread your seed and protect your family. Natural selection is a system of inequality.

Even the industrial revolution did little to help as the business owners became the nouveau riche and acted like lords while their managers directed impoverished workers. The defensive rise of Trade Unions only served to polarize the division further rather than build the equality they seek.

Even today, it is common to find differences between management culture and employee culture, with assumptions such as that only managers caring about profits, they are cleverer and deserve to be paid more.

As with any deeply embedded system, language and actions often subconsciously reinforce the attitude. While executive washrooms are largely a thing of the past, managers tend to use more business jargon, act more assumptively and use their higher pay to live more affluently (which shows up in their dress and conversation). Even with collaborative notions such as empowerment, there is a subtext of the empowerers who graciously allow (yet still oversee) empowered, again reinforcing the difference.

Concentric division: Employees and Outsiders

This force, of corporate identification, can be very helpful in creating a cohesive human branding if it can be given priority over vertical or horizontal division, although the immediacy of the orthogonal forces may only serve to complexify the chaos of difference. A greater risk is where it results in separation of employees from outsiders with whom they should have greater alignment.

The most important outsiders are customers. In the modern world of competition and choice, they have high expectations and their loyalty cannot be assumed. Yet tales of bad service and casual treatment abound. Customer phone connections get outsourced overseas, 'press 1 for sales' tone trees and 'please hold, your satisfaction is important' recordings abound.

Worse, talk and attitudes about customers can be unenthusiastic and even downright hostile. Their high expectations can make customers a nuisance and their lack of product knowledge can make them scornfully stupid. They are hard work, but most of all they are not us, which makes it easy to depersonalize them and hence think of them dispassionately.

Suppliers may get a somewhat worse deal than customers, as when the company is the customer they can be extremely demanding. Suppliers are easily suspected of over-charging and abusing the good will of the company. Rather more than customers they may be looked down on even as demands on them are escalated. There are costs of distrust, including various check-up and repeating quality checks that the supplier should have already done.

Others with whom we should agree and collaborate can easily appear as oppressors who may be complained about or ignored. Investor demands profit and growth can make the seem like slave-drivers or leeches, callously bleeding the company of its hard-earned income. Activists, politicians and those with social intent distract from this with demands to help society and the environment. Competitors, even, may seek collaboration on industry issues.

The basic force

The human species has a curious history. While we easily tend towards selfish personal gain, we are also tribal and will cling to those we know. We want both Me and We, for both individuality and belonging. We need people to like, to be like and who like us, affirming and stroking our identity. We also need different others who are not like us and who we can use to contrastively define our boundaries. They are not us, and because we want to be good, they must be contrastively bad. And bad people can be looked down on and punished.

We do this both individually and collectively. We keep friends and colleagues close (though not so close they threaten our selves). Then to bound and bind the groups to which we belong, we identify outsider groups. In this way we create Us and Them. This defining separation is a trust boundary where I feel safe with Us and threatened by Them, and so seek to stay inside and keep outsiders out. The separation and boundaries are further sustained with ongoing ritual phrases and actions to boost the superiority of Us and downplay the importance of Them.

Breaking down the barriers

The invisible barriers that separate groups are high, but are not surmountable. The classic conflict-management approach is to humanize the others. When we can see, meet and talk with them, we quickly find much in common. Our empathy kicks in and we connect with them. And the more of Them we meet, the harder it is to deny them their humanity. This does not happen easily. We fear deception while other forces such as the common need for shared resources can keep us apart.

Wicked problems are those for which there is no easy answer and their adaptive nature can turn solutions into a part of the problem. Although apparently straightforward, Us and Them can be surprisingly slippery. Even as you tear down the barriers between people, human nature will put them back up again. Turning Us and Them into just Us is hence a process, not a project. It takes constant conscious vigilance to deflect and overturn the unconscious human tendency to revert to hierarchical and tribal thinking.


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