Us versus them: How facilitation can help pull back siloed thinking in the workplace

Polarized thinking, or the idea that there are good guys and bad guys, winners and losers, in every situation, is a common thing I see among teams in all different types of organizations.

When working through a planning or decision-making process, an all too often side effect of passionate professional minds – coupled with limited time and resources – can be fierce loyalty with one “side.”

Too often in a professional setting, teams of colleagues can form into camps, seeing themselves as the heroes, fighting the ‘right’ fight at the expense of another group that’s working towards different goals.

The cause

What causes this sense of “us versus them” in the corporate world? It’s human nature to bond with those who you work closely with – especially if they think the same as you.

The symptoms

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But problems begin to emerge when you start aligning too tightly with your own team to the point where you close your mind to the opinions of others and maybe even treat them a threat to your own objectives.

Power struggles often hatch when employees or team members feel like they’re competing: for scarce resources, for pride, power, prestige, time, ownership, budget, headcount… you name it.

The prognosis

The concept that in order to be right, someone else has to be wrong, or that we’re too busy to check with others, or that ignoring others means we don’t have to take them into account, can be a damaging one.

A division of teams into separate silos can lead to inefficiencies, lost productivity, slumping morale, duplication of efforts, confusion of responsibilities, and more.

At its best, a misaligned organization squanders time, skills and talks ‘past each other’, and at its worst, can lead to a toxic work environment, leaving people feeling like their fighting for their lives or being unfairly targeted.

What’s the cure?

Professional facilitators like me are trained to help people listen, hear and understand each other. It sounds straightforward, but when a team’s reputation or an individual’s career prospects are on the line, (as they might perceive it), it’s easy to let the basics of considerate, authentic two-way communication fall by the wayside.

Fortunately, there are plenty of tools that facilitators can use that work as a powerful antidote to the “us versus them” mentality. See this in your organization? Here’s how a facilitator might help restore balance.

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  1. Constructive listening

Participants in my sessions have told me time and time again that this technique is surprisingly useful.

I ask two people to sit with one another at a table, desk, on a bench, etc. I ask one to talk about their opinion, or the issue at hand. For two minutes straight they just talk, and the other person does nothing but listen. (They can take notes, but are encouraged not to respond in any way.) Then, flip it. For another two minutes the other person speaks and the first speaker just listens.

In a larger group session, I mix the partners up and start the two-minutes listening/two-minutes speaking exercise again. Now, that’s four minutes, six minutes, eight, that you’ve just listened to someone else.

Sound easy right? In fact, it feels quite unusual at first – to not offer response or ask follow up questions. But, even so, I encourage you to take the time and make the space to try this, as prescribed, and see what comes up.

  1. Asking the right questions

Another technique I love is called the Interview Matrix. In this exercise, there are four, straightforward, but unique questions that are posed. The questions are open enough that anyone can respond. Every person is assigned one of the four questions and is given note paper to record the responses of those answering their question. Through a round-robin process, each person will receive three answers to their question, and will also respond to the other three questions (six rounds if you’re doing the math – three rounds as a listener and three rounds as a respondent). Generally, I allot about five minutes per round.

Again, with this exercise, you are creating a situation where people must listen. Sure, they may have objections, questions, frustrations running inside their heads, and that’s OK! At very least, everyone gets the opportunity to put their stakes on the table, and have their voice heard. After that, a discussion can be had, where everyone is starting with the same information. A common response at the end of this exercise is “I heard so many different perspectives.”

  1. Good cop, bad cop

Ritual dissent is a similar active listening exercise that I often use. Here, a person presents an idea (related to the task, question or issue at hand) to a small group of people.  In the first round, the group that was presented to is instructed to only give negative feedback. The presenter then tweaks his/her proposal and moves on to another small group to present it again. This time, listeners are instructed to only give positive feedback to their presenter.

This is a way for the presenters to hear input they might never otherwise hear (i.e. an ally or team member being forced to consider if there are any downsides to an argument, or a non-supporter having to dig deep to find a bright side to the presenter’s argument). This is just another way to get different types of feedback in the open for consideration.

Real, meaningful change

These exercises are all great for sharing perspectives and generating discussion in a room. And while they are strong steps in the right direction, sometimes the hardest part is getting participants to consider a change on the inside – to consider that their view might not be the right one.

This is where I come in.

The neutral stakeholder

In the book The Third Side, William Yuri talks about the necessity of “cooperating to compete.” He identifies the importance of the third side, people who have a stake in the outcome, but don’t necessarily have a side. These people may enable process, idea sharing, shuttle diplomacy, or clarification as an example.  In my case, I provide the neutral process that allows a group to arrive at an outcome. My purpose is to help the group achieve the best outcome for the group, as decided by the group.

Consensus as the answer

To me, and my fellow professional facilitators, there is no right or wrong answer; rightness is whatever consensus the room reaches. But rather than simply encouraging a mob mentality, or agreeing for the sake of agreement, I consider a successful consensus one that’s arrived at only after everyone had been led through a fair and transparent process where all participants have equal say.

Funny enough, I’m often invited to facilitate group discussions or planning sessions where my client is hoping I can bring over difficult personalities or strongly opinionated naysayers to a certain side. They hire me with the intention of reaching a specific outcome at the end of the day.

I tell that that, in fact, I’m not there to lead the discussion in a certain direction, or manipulate the outcome. I’m there to make sure the group lays their thoughts, ideas and opinions on the table for others to hear, so that a well-informed opinion can be reached – among all.

The result? Even if the group doesn’t land where the client is expecting, they usually tell me they are happy with the group’s decision. They are satisfied because the process was clear and they watched the engagement and support happen along the way. This, they often agree, is more important than the nature of the outcome.

What’s the point?

Having someone leading the discussion who has a strong incentive to find resolution (a.k.a. the neutral facilitator) can be extraordinarily helpful.

This is the person who can focus on bridging understanding, motivating the room to a space where everyone can agree – even if that means ceding some of the power, the prestige, the budget, the headcount – the rightness – that some may be holding on to as the thing that will save them from the punishment of being wrong.

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