Us vs. Them

Two businessman casting a shadow shaped like two fightersAt a recent literary seminar, the poet Marie Howe received thunderous applause when, commenting on the then-breaking news about the attack on the Charlie Hebdo editorial staff in Paris, she asked the question, “Why is it that everywhere we look today, the conversation is dominated by ‘us versus them’?  How can we return to a place of realizing that we are all ‘us’?”

The enormous applause generated by Marie’s comment gives us, as leaders, precious insight. There is both fatigue with polarization, and a yearning to find common ground. Much like the mood at the end of long wars, Marie had tapped into that desire to return to a more rational humanity.

But what , you ask, is the lesson in Marie’s  insight for me as a business or nonprofit leader?  Well, start by taking a look around your organization.

  • Where are there pockets of us vs. them?
  • Have the dynamics of those relationships become even more strained as the external environment shed a mantle of acceptability over increasingly uncouth actions?
  • Has competition deteriorated into warfare?
  • What is the fallout of polarization between areas? What discomforts are employees bearing? What banners are they being forced to carry, whether they subscribe to them or not?
  • Are opinions so cemented that innovation is compromised?
  • What norms are being created in your culture that you never intended?

If Marie did really capture a prevalent mood, one that represents not just a political statement, but the voice of Everyman, your leadership is crucial now.   Your employees are looking  to their leadership, wondering whether there is the recognition, and the will, to change the game. You can’t change their Congress, or their world politics, but you can be sure they have an oasis of rational humanity to soothe their stress. And you can establish examples of a different way to view and act in the world. Here’s where you can start:

  • Insist on ‘us’. Pound home the message that the company only thrives when you’re all in it as a whole, not as competing parts. Hold people accountable for acting collaboratively, and pull them aside when they’re not.
  • Raise the status of key values. Make ‘respect’, ‘dignity’, and ‘integrity’ not just nouns, but verbs, seen in all interactions in the organization. Assure that opinions and ideas are accorded not just a hearing, but a reasoned assessment.
  • Eschew damaging external norms. Call out norms in the environment that you do not want emulated in your organization. Make boundaries clear on what you believe is acceptable.
  • Examine your own language and actions. Be sure that how you refer to competitors or regulators offers them the same dignity and respect you expect to be practiced in your organization. Seek partnerships and collaboration where it benefits not just business, but a larger human picture.

Are you ready for ‘us’?  While competition may be stimulating, when it’s the dominant theme, it tires all the players.  Be aware of your organization’s ‘emotional state’. You, like Marie Howe, might get your biggest applause by elevating the ‘us’ in your organization.

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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