How to Fix an “Us” vs. “Them” Mentality Among Teams

I recently worked with an organization, let’s pretend they’re a widget company, that had a very problematic “us vs. them” dynamic.

There are two main groups within the organization: the Makers who create the widgets and the Sellers who sell them. (Creative naming, I know!)

The two groups had a lot of hostility towards one another. The Makers felt disrespected because they felt the Sellers withheld important information from the team. The Sellers got annoyed when the Makers spent too much time hanging around instead of creating the widgets.

As a result, the two groups were like enemies in a common ground. The leader of the organization wanted to create a more cohesive work environment where they didn’t have that barrier, and called me in to help with team dynamics.

So many organizations suffer from the “us vs. them” mentality among groups. Here’s what we did with the widget company to help mitigate the workplace drama and get their team to work together.

Get clear: is it a group or is it a team?

Groups and teams are two very different entities, and traditional “team-building” processes won’t work if what you really have is a group.

That’s why this should be the first question you ask.

A team has a shared goal. People have individual responsibilities but they’re all working towards their shared purpose.

A group, however, may have a common interest, but it’s not necessarily a shared purpose. They have individual accountability, not shared accountability.

For example, the graduate students I teach are a group. They’re all in the same class, doing the same work, and all working towards earning a degree. But they’re not working together to achieve that goal.

There’s nothing wrong with a work group! But if there isn’t a shared goal, you can’t expect your employees to perform the same way a team would.

What are the barriers?

In order to work as a team, you need to figure out what your barriers to success are. What’s getting in the way of people working together?

We use the 5 Dysfunctions of a Team model to identify and address barriers. Identify the one (or more) underlying issues that your team is suffering from:

Absence of Trust — inability to be open and honest within the team

Trust is the foundation of any strong team. If you don’t have trust, you can’t function together and work towards a common goal.

Fear of Conflict — being inauthentic or passive in order to avoid arguments

Healthy conflict is actually a great thing. When team members are afraid to disagree or share other viewpoints, “yes” people abound which allows bad ideas to move forward.

Lack of Commitment — not upholding group decisions

Team members who say one thing and do another derail collaboration. A healthy team walks their talk and follows through.

Avoidance of Accountability — unwillingness to hold the team accountable

If team members don’t hold each other accountable, standards start to drop. The boss shouldn’t be the disciplinarian, team members should also call others out in a respectful way.

Inattention to Results — focus on individual, rather than team, gains

A team needs to value shared results, not just their own. There’s nothing worse than a team member who only acts in his/her best interests.

Define your rules of engagement

Once you diagnose your barrier, make your team aware of it. Acknowledge it by saying “here’s what’s holding us back, and here’s how we’ll fix it.”

One solution that will help all teams improve is to get clear on their rules of engagement.

Your rules of engagement is a contract you create together. Bring your teams together and get clear on what they view as acceptable behavior.


Answer questions like:

How do we engage with one another?

What does respect mean to us?

When we’re in meetings, can we interrupt? Is it okay to swear? When we raise our voices, is that a sign of passion or disrespect?

What is the best way to address conflict?

Can we bring up specific examples or people’s actions, or should we keep it anonymous?

The widget company created rules of engagement that really balanced what they wanted the culture to look like. It included leadership sharing information from the top about strategy, making sure to keep everyone involved (not just one layer,) and solicit and provide feedback to one another. They agreed all team members need to take responsibility and speak up if you have a problem to become a part of the solution. They also wanted to have courageous conversations and assume positive intent of all other team members.

Make it present within the organization

You know what’s wrong and how to fix it, yay! Now it’s time to make it present so improvement actually happens.

Make sure to address your barriers in an ongoing fashion. The widget company added their rules of engagement to their server and on a whiteboard in the office. They talk about their progress at every meeting.

They also have regular lunch and learns to equip the team with the skills necessary to carry out their rules of engagement. They discuss things like how to have creative conversations, improve emotional intelligence, and manage complaints effectively.

Getting clear on their barriers, along with rules of engagement, is helping the widget company hold themselves accountable and push themselves to act in the right way. They refer back to their rules of engagement on a regular basis and say “this is what we agreed to do, so that’s why I’m bringing it up.”

It’s a process and their problems aren’t disappearing overnight. But they’re making great progress, which is what teamwork is all about!

How do you bring your team members together? What is your #1 barrier right now? What is one of your non-negotiable rules of engagement?

Working through the Five Behaviors model — like we did with the widget company — can do wonders for your team’s synergy. You can’t move forward until you identify what’s holding you back. 


By | 2018-03-28T18:04:28-05:00 March 28th, 2018|Uncategorized|Comments Off on How to Fix an “Us” vs. “Them” Mentality Among Teams