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Shifting the team viewfinder

I sometimes wonder if we are living in the 21st century. Not with what we see on the Tv or in the news, but when I see some of the issues that arise in the workplace.

I’m talking about inter-team strife.

Does it happen in your business? Do you have a few teams that should work hand in hand but don’t? Do you have examples of silo’s that do more than think differently, they work against each other?

A few years ago I was running a change programme that involved the down-sizing of two teams who worked side by side for different managers. One team handled customer problems and the other handled customer bills. Often the problems that the customer team faced from customers was the bills. Often the problem that the billing team faced was with customers not paying the bill. You would think that with such an overlap of issues the teams would find some benefit in working together wouldn’t you? Their team areas were a mere ten feet apart yet the gulf often felt like the great wall of china!

To improve the situation we decided that the downsizing project would also involve the moving of some of the better team-members between the two teams. The idea was that with better understanding of what each team did, we would reduce the friction and improve the cross silo working. When the appointments were announced I was working close by the team-space and I witnessed one of the candidates nominated to move teams proclaiming that they would ‘soon sort out those —— next door!’ I wondered what we had let ourselves in for. Had we just moved the battlegrounds?

A month later I witnessed the same person talking in their new team. They were complaining about the team next door! A complete shift in perspective in four weeks!

I realised then how tribal people still were and began to notice similar behaviour in many places that I worked. Teams often have practices that amount to rituals. These rituals make a unique team and differentiate them from other teams in the organisation. Some teams have different uniforms from others. Most teams have different locations that are close to tribal lands (and you know when you have entered and you aren’t one of the tribe don’t you!). Teams meet and discuss issues and often these are with the team whose function adjoins them. These issues are often ‘stepping on our turf’ by doing our role instead of what we perceive as theirs. And sometimes the tribal leader joins in!

Sound familiar? So what do you do about it?

A lot of people try and deal with team friction through rules or discipline or by trying to create empathy between people. This might work to a point, but my view is that if they are behaving tribally you’ve got to think tribally in your solutions.

One of my favoured approaches when dealing with team friction is best explained through looking at the history of the land of my birth. Everyone knows that the Scot’s tribes are called clans, but not everyone knows that smaller clans were called Septs. The Septs swore allegiance to a bigger Clan and in times of war they rallied to the standard of that clan and stood side by side with other Septs and faced a common enemy. Then they went home and went back to fighting with the Septs that they had stood shoulder to shoulder with!

If you’ve got two tribes who are in conflict, one of your problems is that they see each other as the enemy. When they see another tribe as the enemy everything they do is seen in a bad light, everything they do is wrong, everything they do is something to be suspicious of. Lets face it history has taught them that’s the truth and their viewfinder is turned that direction and focused that way.

If you want to change the situation you’ve got to move the focus of the viewfinder. That focus is a ‘common enemy’ (just like the Scottish Septs). I look for a focus outside of the organisation such as a competitor. Most organisations have someone that they compare themselves with, competition for their market share, someone looking to sell to the same customers, someone whose product is too similar etc. The focus has to be real and something that everyone in the organisation knows about. It’s likely to be unwritten, but soon get told when you join. Its unlikely to be part of your vision or mission, but it will be part of your organisational chatter!

By getting each team to focus outside of the organisation at someone else that they need to win against you have a starting point for the team’s to see that there is something to value in each other. Something that means they need to work with the other team. Once a team starts to value another team then you have the chance for the other steps in moving from team conflict to team alignment.

Don’t fight the tribes! Just shift their focus and watch as the alliance begins to form and conflict begins to diminish.


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