Interrogate Your Instincts
June 26, 2012
Every televised football game comes with a superimposed yellow line, showing outside viewers the down and distance long before the players have accurate placement. Teams on the field never see the yellow line, while those outside the stadium can see the down-distance situation in real time.
Your organization has its own invisible line unseen by most inside the building. Instead of marking first downs, this invisible line is part of any company's hidden curriculum, separating management from staff, programming from sales, or research from marketing. The boundaries established by the line are often clear to readers-of-rooms visiting from the outside. These lines aren't mal-intended, but instead routine; part of the pathology of groups of people. The most advanced leaders can see them for what they are while striving to minimize their impact on function. Less successful managers seem oblivious as the lines can become more defined, more divisive.
What You Tolerate, You Encourage
Your job is not to see the team as it is, but what it can become. In a lot of places, leadership inadvertently sanctions a climate of "us against them," "our department first," or, "if it weren't for them..." What brings us to this plateau at a time when we should be experienced enough to avoid it? Let's start with the precept that nothing seems as formidable when you divide it into smaller pieces. For example, we've often referred to the recognition of two types of tension in any building. One is very productive (task tension), while one is completely destructive (relationship tension). If relationship tension runs high, task tension necessarily remains low. They will not parallel, which is a great place to start retooling the climate.
Consider the e-mails you see, the memoranda your read, the voice mails you hear. Technology has lured us into the trap of convenience through brevity. Unfortunately, 50% of e-mails written probably shouldn't be sent. Once you hit the "send" button, it may already be too late. Even a well-intended, skillfully written e-mail can be read as monochromatic with no tonal abstraction. Since 50% of all spoken communication lies not in words but through tone and body posture, e-mails or texts are great instruments for procedural communication, but dangerous for sensitive developmental work. Voice mails are only marginally better. What the sender intends as a brief, no-nonsense message may be heard as a terse or obtuse jab. Four things never come back: resigned talent, the "sent" e-mail, the past and lost opportunity.
Worst of all is the unforgivable practice by some leaders of segregating people and departments by perceived status. Consider upscale Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where a venerable private prep school has existed since the early 1900's. A few years ago its hierarchy decided to refer to the headmaster and core leadership group as "The 'A' Team," replete with preferred and exclusive annual privileges.
Dedicated faculty, many of whom were young and talented, rightfully asked, "does this make us the junior-varsity?" as they prepared résumés and drifted off to other places. Irreparable divisiveness began to thrive through the school's caste system.
Truman said, "You can accomplish anything in life, provided you don't care who gets the credit." We all face a series of magnificent opportunities, disguised as impossible situations. Beware the invisible lines.