Training & Development

How the “we/they” can cripple your organization

Now that college football season is here, try an experiment on your football-loving friends.

If your friend’s favorite team won the first game, ask your friend what happened. Your friend may say, “We looked great, we won.”

Now, ask a friend whose favorite team lost on Saturday. You’re likely to hear this: “They played terrible. They lost.”

It’s natural for people to want to bask in glory when things are good and shed ownership when the outcome isn’t so good. We won. They lost.

We see this in business all the time, often when the stakes are much higher than pride.

One of the most damaging characteristics in a company’s culture is called “we/they.” It can be a silent killer of both performance and culture. It’s difficult to pinpoint, and without proper training, it can run rampant in your organization without a leader or an owner’s knowledge.

Let’s look at some business examples of we/they:

“If it was up to me the answer would be yes, but management says no.”

“Human resources won’t let you do anything around here.”

“It’s above my pay grade.”

“I fought for you, but …”

We/they in business comes down to this: When someone positions themselves in a positive light by making someone else, in essence, the “bad guy.”

In my experience, people can do this so routinely that it becomes second nature. Often this type of leadership has been modeled by a boss, and it grows because the organization does not invest in the skill development of its supervisors.

I can speak to this topic well, because at one time I was a master in we/they. Those who reported to me liked me. They even felt sorry for me that I reported to administration and had to attend all of those meetings and fight for the department budget every year.

Where did they get such a perception? From me.

When the answer was yes, I gave it. I was the hero. When they requested time off, a change in their schedule, a change in duties or a pay raise, I would say “Let me run this by administration (my boss).”

If the answer was yes, the employee thanked me for fighting for them.

If the answer was no, I still got thanked, but the blame went to my boss and administration.

Meetings worked the same way. The way I talked negatively about these meetings to my employees, they thought I was walking the plank. At budget time, they would wish me luck and I’d return as if I’d just single-handedly taken on the Alabama Crimson Tide.

At the time I was not aware of the damage this was causing the employees, the customers, the organization and even me.

Here’s the point: Being in leadership means taking ownership of a message even when it’s not positive. If you use another person — or the organization — as an excuse, you hurt your standing as a leader, you hurt the organization and you can build a culture that reinforces “victimhood.”

Here are some tips to identify and eradicate We/They culture:

— If you are already measuring employee satisfaction, an easy way to diagnose we/they is to look at the data. If employees like their direct supervisor more than the top management, you have a we/they culture. Unfortunately, many companies do not measure this.

— If you here words like, “let me ask,” and “let me run this by (my boss).” You have a we/they culture. So what should you say? “Let me research this.” Come back with the answer and own it. There’s no need to say who said what, but if it is a win, it’s great to share that. Teams and organization can win together.

— You hear blame. Do you hear supervisors say, “I would if I could” or “they won’t let me”? If you do, tell that person to stop. Here’s a tip: Always visualize that your supervisor or top management is in your pocket. This helps prevent the blame game.

— Practice. Leading with a we/they mindset is easy; leading without it is harder. Take time to listen to yourself in answers and explanations. Practice answering questions or providing explanations without putting someone else at fault. In fact, practice positioning your boss and the organization in a positive way.

I’ve heard people tell me that learning not to be a we/they leader is one of the most valuable lessons in their career. In a we/they world, there is a winner and a loser. In a win/win world, everyone benefits: customers, employees, the community, and you.