Simon Terry

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The Devastating Politics of Division

A house divided against itself cannot stand – Abraham Lincoln

A leader in any organisation needs to build cohesion in a team and commitment to the team’s mission. This unity can be a challenge when the environment is highly competitive, the team itself is diverse and the differences between one team and another are arbitrary. Many leaders are tempted to resort to the politics of division. The consequences for sustainability of the organisation are devastating.

The Politics of Division

Human nature has triggers for fear of difference (the “Other”). However what we choose to treat as alien is cultural and subject to manipulation. Fear of an Other can be used to unify a group of people. Weak leaders choose to manipulate this fear by creating and deepening divisions between their team and others in the organisation. ‘Divide and conquer’ as a strategy is as well known as it is old.

The divisions that define the Other within one organisation can be remarkably arbitrary. People of a different silo, team, sub team, group or even individuals can be identified, denigrated and demonised as the Other. The divisions in some cases are legendary:

  • Sales vs Marketing,
  • The Business vs Technology,
  • Head Office vs The Field,
  • Management vs Employees,
  • The Business vs a Specialist (Such as HR, Risk or Compliance),
  • Suits vs Creatives,
  • Us vs Competitors, Suppliers and even Customers.

Other divisions are more subtle, such as “We have by far the best team” or “We own these customers”. More effort must be invested in exaggerating the most arbitrary divisions which can lead to even worse outcomes.

The Consequences of Division

Anything worth doing in human affairs requires communication, community, context and collaboration. Attempts to divide us inevitably break down all four:

Lost Communication: Once someone is identified as an Other communication begins to break down. Communication is discouraged as consorting with the enemy. Messages from the other side are subjected to greater scrutiny, distortion and distrust rises. Measures of performance begin to differ creating challenges for feedback conversations. Driven far enough, the two teams will lose the ability to communicate, often developing their own jargon and own differing world views.

Lost Community: Great community is built in people sharing a common purpose and building deep relationships. Division makes it harder to bring people together for common purpose. Relationships across the boundaries will weaken. Talent will no longer cross the boundaries weakening all teams. Goals begin to diverge from a collective purpose to individual or team goals.

Lost Context: When we demonise any Other, we are distorting reality. We no longer are prepared to see people as they are. We no longer share a common context. This unwillingness to confront reality is as devasting in business as it is in any other sphere. Once you try to sustain a path of distortion, more distortion is required to maintain the illusion as life continues to present the contrary facts.

Lost Collaboration: Without trust and effective communication, collaboration begins to break down. “Collaboration” itself becomes a negative word, a sign of weakness and is seen as the dangerous way to get work done. It is not uncommon to find teams with divisive leaders to be blocking other team’s work and be duplicating knowingly the work of others rather than collaborate. At the same time there is a reluctance to share the learnings and the benefits of their work with other teams.

In a world in which context, communication, collaboration and building community are critical to an organisations ability to change and respond to its environment, the politics of division becomes a major barrier to effectiveness. 

Unite the Divisions

Bringing people together is not easy. Great leaders recognise that bring people together to collaborate, create change and solve challenges is the heart of great and sustainable performance. The more networked, complex and fast changing the environment, the more this holds. These leaders tackle the challenging road of seeking unity:

New Common Reality: Bring people together across the boundaries to confront the facts. Involve all the stakeholders, including those previously excluded as alien. Address the myths and different world views that have arisen.  Seek a common understanding of the world and its impacts.

New Common Purpose: Bring forth from all the people the purpose that brought them together in one organisation. Remind people that their connection to the greater purpose must be a part of individual and team goals.

New Common Action: Trust builds when people work together. There is no better way to build connection than facing a common challenge together. Help people to work in collaboration across the boundaries.

Taking these steps will begin to rebuild the communication, community and collaboration damaged by the politics of division.

Teamed and United

We can be connected closely to our teams and still be an active part of a wider community. Teams can have great differences but work together to leverage their different strengths and views. Collaboration is not about playing nice or papering over difference. Great collaboration demands the most honest assessments, fiercest frankness and hardest calls to be made fairly and transparently. Engaging others to deliver the best outcome  for the organisation and the team is the challenge for all leaders. Leading that way builds communities.

Success should never be at the expense of denigrating others or building walls. The politics of division may tempt leaders looking for a quick lift within a team but the longer term consequences are devastating for the organisation and its community.


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