The other day, a close friend and I had the following conversation:

“You know what the problem with my team is Prakash?”

“ What’s that?” I asked.

“They need to coach their teams more. They need to collaborate more. They need to prioritize better. We would function so much better if They were more disciplined to do these things.”

“Wow, sounds like a lot of things to focus on. Just to focus on one of those, let me ask, do you coach your teams consistently?” I asked.

“Well…when I have time.”

Now, I love this friend dearly, but I have so many issues with this kind of conversation. And unfortunately, this exchange is not unique and happens to be quite common in my work.

As leaders we have to recognize there is no “They vs. Us”…there is only “WE.”

To elaborate, I often hear leaders speak to team issues such as global collaboration, team culture, prioritization, etc. All are real and difficult to fix. However, when approached with the “they vs. us” mindset, a leader separates from the team and creates tension. In essence, leaders speak about their reports as if they are flawed – “My teams need to coach their teams more. My teams need to better prioritize,” and on and on it goes.

As a leader, ask yourself, “Are you coaching your teams consistently? Are your priorities clear to the extent that your reports know how their priorities ladder up to yours?” Whether I work with a first time leader or senior leader, there is a tendency to assume that we have mastered the skills that we want to see in our direct reports. That we are whole and they are flawed. In this “they vs. us” mindset, we ultimately lose the beginner’s mind.

There are two core challenges I see with this “they vs. us” style of leadership. First, we cannot build authentic trust with our teams. Second, in organizations we rise and fall collectively, and therefore, there can only be WE.

Trust

When we separate ourselves from the members of our team, it becomes impossible to build sustainable trust. And yes, I know that most leaders are aware of areas of improvement and have no intention of being hurtful or damaging, yet danger still looms. Even in the team’s absence, adopting the “they vs. us” mindset as a leader can lead to a veil of arrogance and distance. As Marshall Goldsmith points out in his post titled “The #1 Sign Someone Isn’t A Great Leader,” leadership arrogance at all levels leads to little collective improvement:

“When your boss acts like he or she is perfect and tells everyone else they need to improve this is a sure sign that the leader isn’t great. Worse yet, this behavior can be copied at every level of management. Every level then points out how the level below it needs to change. The end result: No one gets much better.”

Additionally, this mindset can become hypocritical and erosive. By maintaining a superior mindset, we as leaders can fail to demonstrate the key behaviors we most want to see in our direct reports. One of my mentors, Fred Kofman, speaks to creating the culture you want to see by Defining, Demonstrating, and then Demanding certain standards. In the “they vs. us” mindset, we often demand a standard of behavior without defining or demonstrating those same standards. Leaders, consider this – is there anything you do that your manager does not define or demonstrate? If your manager is not coaching you consistently, then you’re most likely not coaching your team consistently. It’s a matter separate from the love and appreciation you have for your team. Rather it is an inherent problem in failing to define what is important and demonstrating said behaviors. With this lack of definition and consistent communication, prioritization suffers and entire chains of teams can fall prey to stalled progress and improvement.

When The Ship Sinks, You Go Down With It

Let’s say you or your manager is still unconvinced of the importance of “softer” skills and practices like trust and healthy communication lines. I’d invite you to think of it differently:

Consider the following question – If your team is not exhibiting the behaviors you as a leader believe are vital to success, is it only the individuals on your team that suffer?

Of course not. They may suffer by slower professional growth and an inability to achieve their fullest potential, but so does the organization. The organization suffers by not getting everyone’s best. And of course, you suffer too because you are part of the team and organization!

As a leader, reflect on your ability to set clear expectations and execute on the changes and behaviors you bring to your team. If there is solid evidence that you have accomplished these things, then it becomes critical to address your team as a whole to ensure the highest contribution possible to your organization’s mission.

In my work with the Conscious Business Academy at LinkedIn, I have found that the mindset of WE is not only critical to trust building and team health, but it is the only way to approach leadership when aiming to collectively improve the performance and achievement of the entire organization and its mission.

To reiterate, the “They vs. Us” mindset hurts any team and organization. The WE mindset build sustainable trust and is the only mindset to adopt given the fact that an organization succeeds or fails collectively.

As you move forward in your professional journey as a leader, I challenge you to honestly assess yourself based on two questions:

  1. Do I have a “they vs. us” mindset, or do I genuinely believe and exhibit the “WE” mindset?
  2. If I ask my direct reports to exhibit a behavior, am I leading by example?

I challenge you to stop thinking of yourself as different from your team. Let’s start looking at the members of our team with the mindset that they are whole, not flawed. We are all in this together and we all share in this human experience. I believe if we adopt the WE mindset, we will build more trust, learn more through our beginner’s mind, and see increased individual and collective success.

Written by Prakash Raman             

*Big thanks to Max Hogan for his generous time and help!

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