Ending Us vs.Them: How Divisions Can Eat Away Your Company

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Feb 5, 2013

It almost doesn’t matter how a company is divided, whether it’s vertical (management vs. employees), or horizontal (department vs. department), the end result is a constant state of stress for everyone in the organization.

My empathy to those companies divided into both horizontal and vertical sections. On good days you feel you’ve won a victory, and on bad, you feel like you’ll be fired at any time for any reason.

There’s nothing wrong with inter-department contests and genial ribbing, but there’s a line where sporting behavior crosses into attack and defense, which eats a company from the inside.

There’s no question vertical or horizontal divisions are a failure of company leadership. Good, strong leaders do not allow petty squabbles and territorial marks to overcome progress and goal-reaching. While there will always be problems that need to be hashed out, holding resentments and looking to wound a co-worker will never work in the end.

Working toward the same goals

So how do you overcome a lack of unity, or a place full of division?

First, you have to want it to end. You must lead by example. Listen respectfully to the other side. Seek to find common ground.

Agree to work towards the same goal in your departments. Document the steps you’re taking, over-communicate to make sure your actions are transparent. Encourage your employees to do the same, and celebrate the ones who value teamwork and goal-reaching over petty, insignificant victories.

In my experience, leaders who cause contention never last. It becomes unbearable to work under them and all their support melts away. A company’s only chance is to remove, reassign, or replace employees who cause that contention. Your transparent over-communication and diligent work effort allows executives to see where the bottleneckers and drama-pushers dwell.

The importance of honoring employees

Championing the best idea, no matter where, or from whom, it originated, sends a message to all employees the right things will be done to keep the company growing. Use your company rewards system to highlight employees from the “other” side who are doing great work.

It is especially important in companies with a horizontal division to honor employees. Managers can have a wonderful impact on relations by recognizing and actively appreciating their workers. In companies that don’t have rigid departmental warfare, calling out the good softens those battle lines until they become nothing more than titles on an organizational chart.

We’ve had some incredible experiences with companies where we’ve implemented rewards and culture-wide appreciation changes. Read about how top Canadian accounting firm BDO changed their corporate culture and as a result their employees are happier, less stressed, and determined to stay within the company rather than seeking another position.

This was originally published on the OC Tanner blog.

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