Breaking Through "Us Vs. Them"

You and your employees are a team--so make sure you're acting like one.

I spoke to an upset manager the other day. She founded her business seven years ago on a shoestring and has built it into an organization with more than $1 million in revenues and 30 employees. And in the past year or two, she's noticed that the employees act less like the tight entrepreneurial team she treasures. Instead, they're beginning to gripe and grumble and complain about their manager.

They want more pay. More of them want to be advanced to official management positions. They want the founder and president of the company to articulate a clearer, more exciting "vision" for them to follow. They want her to spend more time with them and less time on the road drumming up customers, because they feel like their concerns are being ignored. They are jealous of one another's successes, they complain about the benefits, they don't like their offices and want to move into a fancier building, they think they should all be able to hire assistants, they don't think the president is working hard enough and think they are working too hard.

You get the idea. For many managers, it's easy to feel that your constant efforts are unappreciated by your staff (who might not have jobs if it weren't for your entrepreneurial initiative). And when they start lobbying like the teamsters, you can easily feel, as the manager I spoke with does, that something has gone wrong with team spirit.

As an entrepreneurial manager, you need a high level of collaboration and enthusiasm in your group. You can't afford the waste of "us vs. them" thinking, with its poor communications, resistant attitudes and unreliable quality of work. Yet we must face the fact that labor-management relations have a long history of antagonism, and the "old ways" easily slip into the workplace and can be hard to exorcise when they do.

Worldwide, employees and managers have an uneasy truce that pushes their antagonisms beneath the surface much of the time, but leaves the old conflicts there to get in the way whenever extra effort or true teamwork is required-as it often is in entrepreneurial settings. I think it is safe to say that no great accomplishments happen in business without the enthusiastic cooperation and help of the people of the business. All the people. So whenever you catch a scent of that old us vs. them thinking in the air, give it your full management attention. Your instincts are right; it is a problem, and it needs to be identified as such.

What can be done to combat the contamination of us vs. them thinking? First, make sure it doesn't suck you in, too! Are you starting to complain about "their" attitude or what "they" do or don't say or do? If so, then you need to remind yourself that the employee's attitude is the business's attitude. It's not "them"-it's "us" that has a problem. This subtle shift in view helps you feel more in control of the problem and more comfortable working on it or talking with (not "to") your employees about it.

For instance, you could simply open the next staff meeting with the observation: "We seem to be falling into some negative attitudes and grumbling about things. It may be a sign of our success that we can afford to let divisiveness into our workplace. But I think that we cannot expect to be successful in the future if we let this divisiveness grow. What do you think?"

Few managers have the guts to speak up and share their concerns right away when they first catch the scent of divisiveness in their team. Tradition says this subject is taboo and cannot be raised freely and frequently in discussions within the workplace. But it is a vital issue and one that everyone has a stake in, so to heck with tradition. My advice to the manager who mentioned her concerns to me, by the way, was to talk with her employees about it. I don't work there, so while I can offer friendly advice from a distance, I can't actually solve the problem. Only she and her team can. And they can only solve it if she challenges them to be a team-in spirit, not just in name.

Alex Hiam is the founder and director of Alexander Hiam & Associates, a management consulting firm, and a publisher of tools for corporate trainers. He is the author ofMarketing for Dummies, Streetwise Motivating & Rewarding Employees, The Vest-Pocket CEOand other popular books, and he has worked with a variety of high-tech start-ups and family-owned businesses.

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