Imagine you are driving a car with a passenger beside you. In the back are a bunch of people laughing, mucking about and munching on snacks. In the front, your face is grim. You can see the road ahead and it doesn’t look good. Black clouds are coming over and you have an uneasy feeling that you are lost. You catch a sideways look from your passenger and realise they see it all too. The noise from the back and the seemingly carefree behaviour is beginning to grate on you. Can’t they see the challenges ahead? Why don’t they help? Why is it always you who has to sort everything?
We use this analogy to describe what happens when senior managers don’t communicate with the rest of the team. Challenges and problems are not shared with those in the back seat who are kept in the dark about the road ahead.
This often results in a feeling of “them and us”, which is probably one of the top unproductive behaviours in organisations. When push comes to shove, it weakens an organisation. Have you ever tried to restructure a region, close a service, implement a new CRM system or introduce a new procedure? How did it go? If it went smoothly, you probably don’t have a” them and us” issue. A change led well is a beautiful thing full of communication, honesty, transparency and a feeling of being in it together. If those changes went badly, is it because no one knew why, it came out of the blue and no one knew things needed sorting out? Was there a privacy screen between you in the front and them in the back?
We work with teams at all levels of organisations and watch out for the “them and us” syndrome. Here are some ways we can spot it:
- Team members talk about ‘them’ and ‘they’. When pushed, they cannot name them and they, but they know they are up there in the organisation somewhere.
- Regional teams talk about ‘them in head office’ as if they are a separate organisation. This disassociation can go further. We worked with a client, let’s call them ABC, who ran schools as part of their service provision. The headteachers talked about the organisation as if they were separate entities. When we suggested they were ABC, we saw confused faces.
- Senior managers use a telling phrase, “why don’t they?”. They wish that their staff would mysteriously rise up and read their minds.
- Staff accuse senior managers of not understanding the jobs on the front line and they have never done a hard day’s work in their life and get paid too much.
- Blame is scattered around – how could they do this to us?
How do you turn this around? By inviting the people in the back seat to lean over the front seat and see the road ahead, the black clouds, the map and how lost you are. Once they know they can help, you are still accountable, but harnessing everyone’s skills will make sure you get to your destination successfully. You create understanding and that brings creativity and teamwork.
What does this look like?
- Communicate, communicate, communicate the why, what and how of your change.
- Get out more – go and walk the job but not just a royal visit. Ask questions, be curious about roles, challenges and the delights of the jobs people do. Sometimes we think we should know, so don’t ask which is a missed opportunity for understanding.
- Enable your teams to do what you wish for. Give them accountability for getting tasks done, be clear about what you expect, push decisions down as far as you can. You can then free yourself up and dial down your stress levels.
- Share your career path, let your staff know what you have been there and done. Not to boast or justify yourself, just a natural conversation about your background. You were not born fully cooked and talking about your past can be so revealing for others.
- Explain your decisions carefully without leaving things out you presume others will not understand. Try not to worry that your people will struggle with a decision – through struggle comes learning.
Gripping the steering wheel of your car and not sharing the burden is a lonely place to be. You have a wealth of talent in that back seat who can help shape and transform anything in your organisation. So, look after yourself, pull over before you feel tired and lean over the back seat, grab one of those snacks and join in the fun of teamwork.