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The Line Between We And They

November 21, 2009

Life is full of lines. We start out coloring between the lines, then we graduate to waiting in line, standing behind the line and keeping our eyes on the bottom line.

Let me introduce you to yet another line, the “we/they line”. It’s not quite as visible as some of the others, but it’s always present in any organization with more than a handful of people.

The “we/they line” is a measure of commitment and acceptance, and an indicator of differing interests and priorities. When you look at a typical organization chart, the “we/they line” is drawn at that level in the organization where everyone above the line refers to the organization as “we” and everyone below the line refers to the organization as “they”.

What’s the significance of the “we/they line” to a business? The “we/they line” is a barometer of how things are going. Push that “we/they line” down and you’ll see the bottom line go up.

With an increase in uncertainty or hardship, the line has a tendency to move up the organization. When the “line” moves up the organization, it is an indication that people are distancing themselves from the decisions that are being made or the results that have occurred.

“They decided”. It may not always indicate disagreement but it does indicate lack of involvement and commitment. It’s an indication that it’s time for leadership to exert itself and to begin some team building to raise morale.

The “we/they line” is an indicator of who is willing to assume responsibility. Those below the line are choosing to disassociate themselves from the decisions that are being made. That may not mean an absolute rejection of responsibility, but rather an unwillingness to take responsibility in a particular circumstance. That unwillingness to assume responsibility, to say “they” instead of “we”, can result from the frustration of not having significant enough authority to influence the result.

On most airlines the flight attendant begins by reading from a script that says “we’re glad to have you aboard”. If the flight gets delayed and you inquire about connection times, the announcements began “they haven’t told us anything yet.”

As long as organizations have people, there will be a “we/they line”. It is desirable to move the line to as low a point in the organization as possible. However, even in a perfect organization, some people will always be closer to the “line” than others. That is a recognition of the fact that different people within an organization have different priorities.

In a typical business organization, those at the top have a primary concern with financial performance. Business organizations make money by selling, so top management focuses on financial and marketing objectives.

As you proceed through the organization, people become less focused on the financial and marketing objectives and more concerned with operational issues, the products, the people, and the everyday activities. These everyday issues are the ones that impact their daily lives. The policy, financial, and marketing decisions are thought to be beyond their control. It is at this point that the “we/they line” appears.

How can you find the “we/they line” in your business? It’s easy, just listen. Now the hard part. What, if anything, can you do about it?

First, don’t do anything to quickly. Once you have recognized where the line is drawn, you want to begin to make a slow, but steady effort to move the line down. You want to get as many people as possible on the “we” side. People naturally cross to the “we” side when they understand, accept, and agree with the objectives of the organization and appreciate their important role in advancing those objectives.

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