The Destructive “Us Versus Them” Attitude Within Growing Companies
When a company is young and beginning to grow it’s simple – it’s “us versus the world.” Then the company gets bigger, more people and layers are added, the shared culture gets diluted, and the tendency shifts toward internal competition, political infighting, and aggressive protection of self-interests. It’s a theme that appears in all growing organizations, and good leaders understand that “us versus them” behavior will eventually destroy a company.
It’s a major leadership challenge: How do you get everyone in the organization to think in terms of “Us” – we’re all in this together – rather than thinking of colleagues or other parts of the organization as “Them?”
Growth Creates Tension and Conflict
All growing organizations eventually reach a point where their past and future collide. Tension builds between the need to grow rapidly versus the need to build structure, plans, process, and systems to support that growth.
Conflict arises between big-company-management styles versus entrepreneurial employees accustomed to shooting from the hip; founders versus professional managers; management versus non-management; engineering versus marketing; sales versus operations; marketing versus sales. And squabbles often occur within the senior management team over goals, strategies, and resources.
People cling to past ways not because they’re effective or efficient but because they are well known and comfortable. Functional groups and business units form silos, acting alone and not communicating with the rest of the organization. In particular the sales and operations functions become dysfunctional. Infighting and internal battles are almost as intense as battles with competitors.
Old Versus New Leads to Friction and Strain
In a growing company, there is stream of new faces, people who do not know each other and who do not know the company. With a host of new people, the team – at any level – does not have a chance to gel. Employees do not know each other’s competencies, values, and hot buttons. Current employees often feel threatened by the influx of new employees. Friction results.
Natural allies – long-time employees versus newer hires – add to the social strain. Newcomers are hired because of their specific expertise and are often placed in areas where the old guard is the weakest. Old-timers feel themselves threatened and downgraded.
There is also a natural tendency for people to think in terms of their individual and team self-interests. People who work in a small department or a team, are naturally going to identify with the people they interact with the most. Other colleagues they pass in the hallway can seem like complete strangers, even though they work for the same company. The sense of “family” is lost.
The Organization Breaks Down
All of this friction and strain makes the different parts of the organization less and less in sync. In many cases, the core vision gets blurred or even lost, or it may still be visible but simply no longer valued by the now diverse organization. Departments become isolated from one another, and teamwork grinds to a halt, with each part of the company “doing its own thing.”
3 Keys to Eliminating “Us Versus Them”
- Simplify Direction. A big part of a leader’s job is to establish strategic priorities that are clear, simple, focused and easily understandable so that every person in the business is on the same page. Incentive plans should be designed around the organization’s top priorities using a simple set of performance metrics. Every thing must be completely transparent. Whether it’s a senior manager or an entry-level employee, people need to be connected to the top priorities in a way that they feel like they are part of the big picture. Everyone in the business has to clearly understand how their individual contributions help achieve overall company goals.
- Communicate Continuously Throughout the Organization. Communication breaks down in growing companies often because the organization has no formal system through which information can be channeled. There’s a reason why successful companies hold regular company-wide meetings. You have to bring everybody together for people to identify themselves with the big picture. Take your small set of strategic priorities and communicate them, again and again, even if you feel like everybody has heard it a thousand times. Over-communication cannot be emphasized enough. Constant communication helps reinforce an “us” culture and keeps the business on track, preventing infighting, silos, and politics from resurfacing.
- Find Balance in Diversity. As an organization grows, it needs diversity in thinking, styles, and experience. The solution to the challenge of accommodating the growing company’s changing needs lies in establishing a dual perspective, one that acknowledges both the firm’s past style and future needs. The goal is to have the best of both worlds. You want a company that continues to be entrepreneurial without entrepreneurship being its only strength and it is well managed without being choked by its own systems and processes.
Is there an “us versus them” attitude within your company?