Commercial entertainment is great at creating a clear discernible line between protagonist and antagonist. The person (or group) you want to “win” and the other side you want to “lose.” In fact, our expectations of entertainment are so predictable that Hollywood movie producers know they have less than 10 minutes to get their audience invested in a story before their attention drops off dramatically.
The lines between “good” and “bad” are drawn so quickly and so distinctly in entertainment, that in addition to it being (more or less) hardwired into our minds, people also end up being conditioned to look for this kind of distinction in other areas of their life.
Like, you guessed it, their job…
Even the best possible situations in which you have a great workplace culture and a high-functioning team, your employees’ minds are busy trying to organize their experience at work as an “us” vs “them” scenario.
What does this mean for you as a leader, manager, or business owner?
The science is pretty clear on this: it is a psychological necessity for our brains to draw these distinctions. So how can we begin to overturn the bias towards being “against” one another in the workplace?
These tips can help you start to right the ship:
When meeting with your employees, make sure to remind them that you are all on the same team. This may seem simplistic and redundant, but it can be very effective. Simply speaking affirmations of, “We’re all on the same team” and “If one wins, everyone wins” is an easy start.
Too often we “outmanage” ourselves by assuming that being intentional and saying it aloud is too obvious or remedial.
Many leaders are serial “under-communicators” and one of our most popular lessons teaches how to provide effective, frequent feedback to our teams. Do not fall into the trap of assuming alignment - stay committed to communicating the values of the organization and the value that each member brings to the team.
Help your team to understand your responsibilities and the requirements of the decision-makers, but avoid playing the “one-up” game with your staff’s responsibilities.
I’ve gotten to hear Horst Schulze, former Ritz-Carlton President, speak a number of times. I love it when he explains how he onboards his new (even entry-level) employees. He tells them, “You have the most important jobs each day. No one even notices when I don’t show up to work.”
So VALIDATE their work. But at the same time, share with your team in a palatable way that your obligations are filled with important tasks. And, share exactly how those tasks support the current project and support their efforts to complete their pieces of the project.
What will be critical here, is to make sure you accomplish this without making it seem like an appeal for sympathy. Nothing will sabotage your attempt at transparency more than the accusation of an ulterior motive.
Obviously, we must exercise active listening during conversations and interactions, but an equally important aspect of listening that is often ignored is “chatter.” This might be conversations in the hallways, break rooms, or while out to lunch, and it includes the subtext of comments made during meetings or presentations.
If your employees are talking about it, then it’s probably important to them.
Sure, “idle” conversation happens all the time. But also understand that communicating means using resources (the time and energy) and becoming a little bit vulnerable, and people will rarely concede those two things for something they believe is “idle.”
Listening carefully might help you immediately solve issues understanding where divisions originate amongst your staff and if team-members are unfocused and/or uncommitted.
One thing is certain, leadership in the coming years is not likely to get any easier concerning the “us” vs “them” mentality. Statistics show that Millennials are more distrusting of corporations and have a more cynical view of government and Wallstreet than older generations.
As this systemic distrust spills into the workplace, it will be even more important that leaders leverage flexibility, benefits, and an engaging, supportive environment to attract and employ top talent.
But hiring is only half the battle. It will take a commitment to passionate, involved, and transformational leadership to ensure your organization will be able to retain employees in the “boss” vs “worker” age of employment.
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