Ideas for eliminating ‘us and them’ thinking and damaging rivalries between teams and divisions within the same organisation. (Note: this article does not deal with worker/management mistrust, as the power relations involved add a whole other dimension, although some of the remedies proposed may still be useful in those situations.)

Do you find yourself at odds with another team or division in your organisation? Do ‘turf wars’ and ‘not invented here syndrome’ get in the way of the greater good? Here are some ideas for improving working relationships that have drifted too far apart.

1. What motivates the ‘other side’?

In the nineties, the then British Prime Minister John Major famously said about criminality that we need to “condemn a little more and understand a little less.” This was bad advice for effective policy on crime – and it would be even worse advice for improving relations with another team.

It’s always tempting for us to view people who disagree with us, or who we find ourself in competition with, as ‘the other’; but it’s dangerous, because it opens the way to projecting everything we dislike onto them, and not taking a close look at our own actions and motives.

Instead, it’s a good idea to put yourself in the shoes of anyone that you feel at odds with, and attempt to see things from their point of view. You deal with these people, so you will have an idea of their general attitude and the way they see the world – so ‘try it on’ for a moment and view the situation through their eyes.

Imagining how you, your team, and your team’s actions appear appear to the ‘other side’ may be an eye-opener.

Remember, this isn’t about imagining what you would do if you were in their place. They may think differently from you, so instead ‘get into character’ in a method-acting kind of way – the closer you get to how they think and feel, the more useful information you are likely to get.

In particular, what are they trying to avoid? What are they afraid of? ‘Away-from’ motivation is usually more powerful than ‘towards’, so it’s worth thinking about this if you want to make sense of the other side’s actions. How can you allay fears and minimise risk for the ‘other side’?

And most importantly, remember that your guesses about their motivations are just that, guesses – use what they actually do as a feedback mechanism to make your mental image of how they see the world more accurate over time.

2. Where values differ, what greater good unites your values and their values?

Different job functions of necessity hold different things to be more important. For example, Accounting are always going to place a higher importance on completed paperwork than Sales. Marketing are going to be more interested in products that sell, Engineering are going to be more interested in products that work.

Because we apply different criteria to our work than do other divisions, it’s easy to see them as not caring about what’s important, and the standards they value as being in conflict with ours, so mistrust develops. That’s when you get vital information not being passed on, and sometimes even knowingly making things difficult for other teams. The big picture for the project or organisation as a whole gets forgotten.

To resolve apparent clashes of values, try this process:

a) Remind yourself of what the big picture is for what you are doing. Ask yourself “What’s important about what we do?” It should lead to the ultimate aim of the project, or of the organisation as a whole.

b) Discover what the big picture is for what the ‘other’ team does. If you don’t know the purpose of what they are doing, find out! And keep asking “What is the ultimate purpose of this?” you will probably end up with the same big-picture goal that you are working towards. (If the interests of the two teams really are fundamentally different, and you’re working towards different things, then the organisation has a bigger problem).

c) Discuss with the other team how you can continue to get the results that each side wants, without making things more difficult for each other. It may be that very minor changes in the way you do things could have big benefits for the other team, and vice versa.

3. Look for ways in which the ‘other’ benefits you

Because of ‘confirmation bias’ (the universal tendency of our minds to select for evidence that supports what we already believe), if we are at odds with another team we may be forgetting any benefits they bring to us. So remind yourself to actively look for these benefits.

For example, if you are on a project team you will be focused on getting the job done, and you may well view the client account manager who keeps coming to you with changes that the client has requested as a nuisance. But one of the things that the account manager does is to get you more project work with that customer in the future.

4. Build bridges with the other team

One of the reasons teams don’t understand each other is that they have very little idea of what the other team does. Secondments, shadowing and short-term job swaps are some ways to quickly gain an idea of why another team does things the way they do, and what they need from your team in order to do their job well. Being ’embedded’ with another team also helps you to see them as human beings rather than as obstacles to getting your job done. The more face-to-face contact you have with another team, the better you will understand them.

A facilitated Appreciative Inquiry process involving both teams can be a rapid way of building trust and understanding, and can be carried out in as little as half a day. Asking people about their best moments at work, about their achievements and strengths and what they are proud of – as happens in the Appreciative Interview that is the foundation of an Appreciative Inquiry – enables them to open up and drop their defensive barriers, so that members from different teams can rapidly build understanding and trust.

What methods have you used to repair relations between your team and another?

How To Heal ‘Us And Them’ Rivalries

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