With all the difficulties and challenges that various businesses are facing, it is becoming even more evident that one resource they need to rely on desperately is teamwork. However, I too often see groups or sub-groups of employees or managers entrenched in their way of leading and “their” group’s ways of working, more interested at sowing division and polarised positions.

Why is this?

This normally happens when an attitude, habit or belief becomes so firmly established that it morphs from “what I believe” into “who I am,” and it makes change difficult and unlikely. This would be based on perceptions that a division between “us and them” exists, regardless of whether it actually does, whereby such divisions are often seen as a state of being — that they’re fixed, stable, and not fluid. Most importantly, they’re often imbued with ideological significance, and this is where problems arise.

Research shows that the perceived divisions across subgroups, sometimes called “faultlines,” can increase negative forms of conflict and decrease open communication, team commitment, innovation and ultimately performance. The more subgroups feel stuck to their beliefs and perceptions, the harder it is to see across the divide and consider the perspectives of the others. Unsurprisingly, this leads to higher potential for increased polarisation, less or no teamwork and worse outcomes for the overall team.

While there are some benefits from a group or sub groups feeling content working together, hence generating a sense of belonging and cohesion, business leaders need to harness such benefits while avoiding the other negative potential pitfalls of a divisive mentality. However, before building bridges across the divides and engaging subgroups in more positive ways, the first step is to understand the key divisive forces at play.

How to Spot Divisions
First, leaders must be acutely aware of the potential for (or the actual) division in their teams, based on a number of different attributes and identities. Not all groups or subgroup types have the same effect — some can fuel innovation while others can be divisive and trigger polarisation. Look out for subgroup types based on the following factors:

  • Spatial presence. Team members experience shared events differently depending on their location and the richness of interaction it allows. For example, in hybrid teams, remote team members may not be able to participate in group interactions as often or as vigorously as those who are co-located, creating a natural faultline.
  • Surface-level characteristics. These are factors like gender, age and language. Subgroups based on these characteristics form most readily in face-to-face environments because similarity to other members is readily apparent. These subgroup types are generally associated with negative outcomes, as individuals from one subgroup infer and assume values of the other person or subgroup — for example, based on stereotypes associated with superficial characteristics. These assumptions cause reluctance and frustration in communicating across subgroups that ultimately results in more conflict and lower levels of performance.
  • Knowledge bases. Things like educational and functional background, previous work experience, and expertise predispose people to communicate in certain ways or to have certain mindsets. For example, the concerns of marketers may be very different from the concerns of the R&D team. Despite this, with good leadership, they’ll benefit from making the effort to understand one another and challenge their thinking, and this type of subgroup engagement is likely to lead to a positive outcome.
  • Deep-level identities. Our values, beliefs, religion and past experiences pose the greatest risk of divisiveness because they’re based on our core assumptions about ourselves and the world,and being confronted with others who don’t share them can feel threatening. These subgroups typically take longer to emerge, yet in times where political divides permeate workplace interactions, the divisions lurk closely beneath the surface. Once these subgroups manifest, they’re likely to be easily entrenched and polarising and can have destructive effects on team outcomes.
  • You need to observe how team members engage and interact with one another in both the physical and virtual worlds to uncover who might be part of various subgroups. Ask yourself: Who talks to whom? Who aligns or continually disagrees with whom — despite the idea being discussed? Who chats together during virtual meetings or turns off their camera when someone from the other group is speaking? Who engages in informal interactions such as coffee discussions or inside jokes? These patterns of interaction offer important cues about whether subgroups exist, who might be aligned, and what information or attributes they’re aligned on. Also, be mindful that, when subgroups emerge within a team, it’s likely that the team’s leader, by virtue of their attributes, knowledge, experience and values, is more aligned with one subgroup over the others (which may not be obvious at first glance). This alignment, coupled with the leader’s influence, has the potential to shape how these subgroups interact.

How to Combat Divisions
From the moment a subgroup is formed, it creates a history of its own — a shared identity and subculture that contains stories of triumph, loss and sometimes intense emotional experiences that can be personal in nature. Research highlights that the longer we work in our particular subgroups, the more similarities we begin to find and create between us, which ultimately strengthens an “us” and “them” belief. Leaders can use several strategies to help weaken the boundaries between subgroups in order to resist this. At the core of these strategies is to encourage not only perspective-taking, but also empathy, care and identification with the “other side.”

Shake things up. Shuffling around team membership (for example, through job rotation or project allocation), changing up workstation locations, being intentional about bringing in new team members with different experiences and backgrounds helps break down the perceived divisions of existing groups. These actions offer a chance to question “the way things are done around here,” but be aware that they can also leave those who were once attached to bonded teams feeling lonely, disoriented and grieving a meaningful team identity. To avoid this, pre-frame the team shake-up in a positive way — for example, “We’re moving resources around to help the team meet their goals even more quickly.”

Focus on shared goals and shared adversaries. Reemphasise the overall team’s shared purpose and goals and their urgency by outwardly measuring them. For example, assigning a complex joint project between two departments or assigning members from different subgroups to work together on a new and challenging task helps provide a common goal and purpose that overrides those of the subgroups. If this isn’t enough to dissolve what can feel like fixed divisions, identifying a common adversary (such as a competing company) can encourage two groups to come together with emotion and energy. It’s important to monitor any negative emotions that might emerge toward that adversary to ensure that they’re perceived as healthy competition.

Spend time together. To find things in common with members of other subgroups, people need to spend both formal and informal time together. Points of similarity found here can help members identify with those on the other side — for example, maybe both a woman and a man on a team are parents. This is more difficult in times of remote work, so you need to be intentional about organising informal interactions. You might begin each meeting with a request that each person share a personal win or challenge. Informal connection time also needs to be regarded as important. Hold informal work meetups during business hours so employees don’t feel like they’re adding more hours to their already long days.

Engage bridge builders. When groups are deeply divided, it may be useful to engage people who can cross boundaries and still be seen as “one of us” (for example, by sharing several identities with multiple groups). Research shows that such people can act as cultural brokers between different groups — they can “speak both languages” and be accepted by each group and actively play a role in reducing division and polarisation.

In such difficult times, the easiest path for everyone is to retreat to his or her own beliefs, views and values and feel part of groups of people who are like minded. To create and empower a high-performing teams and whole organisation, business leaders need to learn to become bridge builders.

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