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“Us” versus “Them”: How Cultural Norms Undermine Change

May 2, 2016

After more than two decades of leading and consulting on large-scale organizational change initiatives, it never ceases to amaze me how seemingly innocuous cultural norms can lead to lack of buy-in and even outright resistance to change.

Recently, I was facilitating a workshop on Leading Organizational Transitions when the issue of trust or, more specifically, lack of trust in leadership came up. It’s particularly disconcerting to me how often this topic gets raised, especially given that trust is at the foundation of any family, team (business or otherwise) and organization’s success. And, in this particular case, it was more than the typical concerns around leadership’s inability to create and articulate a compelling vision and effectively address the why behind the change. It was a fundamental underlying cultural “norm” that I have heard all too often: the us versus them mentality, or said differently—people versus leadership.

The way that this manifested reminded me that behind all humor, there is an element of truth. One of the workshop participants from a large hospital corporation ignited the discussion by sharing that during a recent visit to a hospital facility, one of the hospital associates asked her if she was a “scrub” or a “suit.”

Initially, when she brought this up during the workshop, there was laughter in the room. However, after a few seconds, the conversation quickly turned to one of concern and curiosity. How could such seemingly innocent, yet divisive terms have become part of the daily lexicon of her organization?

Looking beyond the obvious, what does this mean? How does an apparently successful organization in an industry that has experienced monumental transformational change over the past decade have such an us versus them culture?

You might be surprised to learn that this type of culture is actually more pervasive than you think. I was recently on a trip to the West Coast when a flight attendant who had just appropriately handled a very rude passenger looked at me and said: “If you think it’s bad being a passenger, try working for this airline.” I smiled politely and wondered what could have possibly made her feel this way. Not more than 30 seconds later, a video featuring the CEO came on the overhead monitors. He talked about the company’s dedication to making this flight a special experience for everyone on board. Ironic, especially given the interaction that I had only moments before.

Were these two examples random stories or does this phenomenon exist even more broadly than we think?

My interaction on that flight reminded me of a successful large-scale organizational change engagement that I had the privilege of working on with a major global manufacturing organization. While doing interviews with employees at the start of the project, one of them mentioned that there was a rift between “carpet” and “concrete.” When I pressed this person to tell me more, he explained further. Essentially, there was an invisible wall between two parts of the same building—and management (“carpet”) versus manufacturing (“concrete”) had become commonplace in the company culture to the point where there was an annual “carpet” versus “concrete” company softball game and barbecue.

Is this type of behavior humorous or toxic?

At first blush, it might seem like just insider or family talk. But how can a family or an organization of five, 5,000 or 500,000 possibly thrive with such a divide?

Does your organization have an “us” versus “them” culture? If you aren’t sure, start by talking with the members of your team. Ask questions and demonstrate appreciative inquiry to get a better understanding of what your people think, feel and say. Only then can you begin to understand and address the cultural norms and behaviors that may be impacting your ability to effectively drive change and move your organization forward to a better future.

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