What happens when a leader is so fiercely protective of their team that it causes their own organization to become a rival, or worse–the villain?
If you manage a team, you’ve probably had to ferry an unpopular message from “up top.” Whether your team will be taking on additional responsibilities, working longer hours, or undergoing a significant transformation, it’s tempting to deliver this news with a “don’t-kill-the-messenger” disclaimer. Phrases like “I don’t like these decisions either,” or “we just have to do what they’re telling us,” may feel like a comfort to your team in the moment. However, leaning on this “Us v Them” psychology is a less strategic approach that can ultimately reduce empathy across the organization and create an environment of toxic tribalism.
Healthy tribes and teams are fundamental to being human and to thriving at work. Unhealthy tribes, however, are marked by hostility and despair, apathy, lack of accountability, and—most importantly—selfishness. Healthy work tribes can lead to extraordinary jumps in productivity, creativity, and profitability. A healthy tribe shares values, embraces each other’s strengths, creates freely, and speaks as a “we.”
At Sendero, our primary medium for developing an esprit de corps is through our Core Values. In both good and challenging times, we express the value of Respect by showing empathy to one another. We lean into Shared Success by thinking and speaking as a “we,” instead of a group of high-performing “I’s.” We encourage our management team to “talk straight” about facts or issues that may be challenging to a team; in doing so, they embody the value of Integrity.
Building a “We” Culture Rather Than An “Us v Them” Environment
Here are three steps you can take to start building a stronger “we” culture for your organization, especially when the going gets tough.
1. In difficult conversations, acknowledge the circumstances and mirror back what you’re hearing.
Try asking questions like, “What worries you about this change?” After your teammate has responded, mirror their response with a phrase like, “It seems like you are worried about ‘x’—is that accurate?” Former FBI negotiator Chris Voss calls this “tactical empathy,” where mirroring helps bypass inherent resistance and creates common ground for two conflicting parties to stand on.
2. Talk about your company’s core values and ask open-ended questions to determine what your team still believes in.
Opening conversations with questions like, “Which of our core values are most meaningful to you? Why?” or “How have you seen one of our values manifested on our team this week?” can help you keep a finger on the pulse of your team’s feelings about their work and the organization.
As a leader, you can make a difference by actively listening, tracking what’s said, and following up on the answers. You can do the latter by discussing the stories told or values mentioned in your weekly one-on-ones or upcoming team meetings. If you only ask questions but don’t follow up, you’re simply letting your team shout into the ether. Venting with little follow-through will be counterproductive.
3. Speak as a “we.”
Having established a set of values that are shared across the organization, speaking as “we” aligns you with your team, and aligns your team with the organization. Here’s what this can look like:
- “We all understand the challenges here, but we trust this is best for every team in our organization and we can grow through this.”
- “This is difficult; what can we do to help each other?”
- “It sounds like these are the values that matter most to us, so how can we express them to one another throughout this time?”
Every good leader wants to be a hero in their team’s story. By following these steps, you can heroically guide your team or tribe without needing an enemy. In this story, the tribe thrives without the existential threat of “them.” And, in an unexpected plot twist, the leader at last discovers they could not have navigated this challenging time on their own. In other words, the leader-hero finds they are surrounded by other heroes, pressing on together as “we.”