As humans, we all have a core need for belonging. We tend to naturally identify more with certain individuals and groups. This is a natural inclination and one we’re not even always aware of.
The flip side of this need for belonging is that in our natural inclination to be drawn towards others who are similar to us, we sometimes don’t see the similarities between ourselves and those with whom we share less commonality.
Not only do we not see them – we sometimes start to only see the differences.
We slowly start to identify less and less with our common humanity and feel less connected than to those who share similar identities, similar beliefs, similar values.
The walls start to build. The teams divide.
How an Us vs. Them Mentality Hinders Collaboration
Years ago, in my previous profession, I was involved in developing and implementing a complex new initiative. As ideas were tossed around during brainstorming sessions, it was clear that not everyone was on the same page. Which isn’t a bad thing because creativity is born from exploring differences of opinion.
However, it became clear as the project advanced that there were distinct camps being formed. Kind of like back in middle school when the class would separate to play dodgeball and you found yourself facing your opponents.
At one point, I had met with a colleague to discuss our ideas and opinions regarding the project outline. We left that meeting with a shared vision.
We later met with our superior to discuss the project. She agreed with some of the points we were making and disagreed with others. As she shared additional information, I agreed with some of the things she was saying. Some of my opinions shifted. Others didn’t.
I was under the impression that our meeting had gone well. Until I received a call from my colleague later that day. She was incredibly angry with me.
She told me that I had jumped ship… switched sides… She was mad that I hadn’t supported her in her views.
I felt utterly confused.
We had entered into this meeting without realizing that we didn’t share the same goal. I had understood that we were meeting to share different points of view, brainstorm possible solutions and to work towards a common ground so that a plan could be outlined.
My colleague had understood that she and I had agreed upon a plan and were entering into the meeting to defend that plan.
When I supported ideas that were different than what she and I had previously discussed, she felt that I was being disloyal to her.
I thought I was simply revising previous conclusions that no longer made sense to me as new information was revealed and new perspectives were explored.
I hadn’t changed my mind on certain issues to please my supervisor. I truly believed the opinions I was sharing, even if they were different from the views I had held previously.
My colleague felt that I had abandoned an unspoken pact to defend our plan. She felt that we had lost an argument that I hadn’t even realized was an argument. I’d thought we were all working together.
It can be complex sometimes.
Since that time, through my work with leaders and their teams, I’ve seen time and time again where this mentality of “us against them” has led to significant challenges in collaboration and transparency and a situation of ‘othering’.
When we view a person or a group of people as lesser than, instead of working to bridge the gap across differences of opinion, we end up focusing on defending our own corners.
The atmosphere that can develop can be a dangerous one. The communication and collaboration challenges that result often extend much beyond people simply holding on to their opinions tightly. There’s often a significant lack of respect of others’ ideas and who they are as a person.
My lesson walking out of that meeting was that when we see people as being on different sides than we are, it becomes incredibly difficult to resolve any difference of opinion. Because no one is actually listening to a viewpoint that is different than their own.
Sometimes, the real issue that needs to be talked about isn’t the difference of opinion about projects or timelines or who does what.
Instead, sometimes we need to take a step back. Go deeper. Explore where the real communication breakdowns are occurring. Have difficult conversations. Re-establish trust and respect.
Only then can we look forward to a new future, where the same patterns of conflict don’t simply keep repeating themselves time and time again.
As a leader, you can encourage this by intentionally exploring diverse views, listening to and considering everyone’s opinion and setting clear limits and guidelines about how differences of opinions are to be navigated with respect. It is also your responsibility to model these skills to the best of your ability as you interact with your own team members and everyone else around you.
Don’t wait for things to get out of hand. Own your leadership responsibility of ensuring that the workspace remains a safe one for everyone.
If you find yourself feeling stuck in navigating complex team dynamics, you can register for my free 6-week video course which will get you started in the right direction as you navigate confrontation and conflict in your leadership role.
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