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The Line Between We And They

November 24, 2009

If your team made it to the Final Four this weekend, you might say “We had a good season”. If your team didn’t even qualify for the NCAA tournament, you might be heard to say “They had a bad year”.

In every group, from your school’s alumni to your employees, there is a “we/they line”.

The “we/they line” is a barometer of how things are going in the short run. But there is more that separates “the we and the they” than just winning and losing. In a business the line is a measure of commitment and acceptance, and an indicator of differing interests and priorities.

Because a business that can’t generate a profit won’t be around too long, attention must be paid to the “bottom line”. However, good managers are also aware of the “we/they line”. Over the long run it too will have a significant impact on the future of the company.

Once an organization gets more than a handful of people, it develops “the line”. 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? Much like the attitude of sports fans, in the short run the “we/they line” is a barometer of how things are going. 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.

One of the objectives of organizational development is to move the “we/they line” down in the organization. Generally speaking, the more people that are above the “line”, the greater commitment you will have to the objectives of the organization.

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.

Because it’s your business, push the “we/they line” down to move the “bottom line” up.

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