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Kelly Graves


‘Us’ vs. ‘Them’ Inc.

There are benefits to conflict, but only if it’s resolved

Published: Tuesday, March 22, 2016 - 15:31

An overwhelming majority of organizations have inadvertently created an “us vs. them” culture. They turn much of their focus and many of their resources away from serving the customer and instead direct them toward fighting one another and vying for power. Or they have given up and are just “doing time.” Losses are rarely caused by the economy or stiff competition; they are self-inflicted and mainly caused by infighting and various forms of conflict.

In essence, people who work in an “us vs. them” culture do so out of necessity. Their days are often focused on the internal problems of the organization rather than on providing better customer service, product improvement, and increasing revenue. Oddly enough, these people started their careers with the best intentions, but over time, small issues turned into overwhelming conflicts until staff and management were reduced to incessant gossiping, finger-pointing, and blaming.

How do you know if you are caught in the deadly grasp of an “us vs. them” culture? Read the following statements and see if some of them sound familiar.  If so, your company is probably caught in this very destructive cycle.
• “They have no idea what they’re doing, and we’re constantly having to rework parts or redo ads and marketing campaigns because they didn’t plan well. Why doesn’t management ever ask our opinion? If they would simply talk with us, we could help them solve these problems.”
• “The last few people who gave their honest opinion were either terminated or picked on by the boss until they were forced to quit.”
• “I wish I could get my employees to follow through on projects and think for themselves. If I don’t stay on top of things around here, they don’t get done correctly.”
• “We lost six more employees. Why do people keep quitting after we spend all that money training them? It’s impossible to find good workers these days.”
• “Who am I going to promote to manage that department? I don’t have anyone decent to choose from.”
• “My boss doesn’t know how to manage, or develop people and build them up; all he knows how to do is tear people down and berate them. I would quit, but I need this job.”
• “They want us to do more work, and yet we have fewer people then we did two years ago. We simply don’t have enough time to do it right—so it’s not my problem.”

After nearly two decades of working with organizations, I’ve never met “they” or “them.” In fact, there is no “they” or “them,” only “us” and “me.” So, if you find yourself in an “us vs. them” culture, get off the fence of indecision, quit griping, and do something about it. Basically, you have three choices:
1. “Me” scenario. Choose to leave and find a better environment to work in.
2. “Us” scenario one. Choose to stay and learn how to make the best of the way things are. In other words, learn to be a good prisoner and quit complaining.
3. “Us” scenario two. Choose to help change and improve your organization. In other words, be part of the solution.

If you decide to move on, do it within three months. Or, choose to improve your skills or education, and then make the job change within six to 12 months. Yes, it may be inconvenient, but you decided to leave, so do something about it.

If you decide to stay and make the best of it, know that it’s a choice you’ve made and be content with that choice. Accept your situation and look for positive aspects. For instance, today, find five things you like about your company, the product, or the people. Yes, this will be hard, but what choice do you have? You decided to stay.

If you decide to help the organization improve, it doesn’t matter what your current position is. Isolate the top three to five problems in your department, make a plan, and offer solutions. If you don’t start the process, who will?

If you decide to stay, educate yourself, your colleagues, and the leaders about the benefits of conflict.

Benefits of conflict

Yes, there are many benefits to conflict. It’s necessary to struggle through normal stages of business growth, but most people don’t know how and stay mired in the muck. The value is in understanding conflict and learning how to harness the elusive powers of this (sometimes) volatile force. As with most challenges, the key is in catching it quickly so you learn to control it before it goes underground (via the grapevine) and causes more problems. Or worse, it becomes part of your company culture. Many owners, leaders, managers, and employees can’t seem to function without drama or conflict and, over time, conflict becomes a way of life—unless something significant is done to turn it around. To understand the benefits of conflict, you first need to understand the three main types of conflict.

Types of conflict

I’ve observed three major types of workplace conflict:

Task conflict. Task conflict arises between members of work teams and affects the goals they are striving to achieve. Differences in vision, intentions, and quality expectations often lead to task conflict. Departments, colleagues, and employee relationships may initially appear to survive task conflict, but an important project may not. It’s essential to channel task conflict so that these differences become complementary and improve the way the team thinks about accomplishing current and future tasks.

Process conflict. This form of conflict centers around the steps or methods used by work teams to reach a goal. One person might like to plan 24 steps ahead, while another might like to dive in head first. Process differences can lead to communication breakdown and ultimately result in conflict. Like task conflict, process conflict can be useful if managed correctly. Healthy differences in process often lead to an improved way of achieving challenging goals.

Relationship conflict. Often misunderstood, relationship conflict undermines and tears at the fabric of an organization, department, or team’s ability to achieve its goals. Relationship conflict penetrates all aspects of an organization. When people in a work environment fail to communicate often and effectively, teams, departments, or entire organizations will suffer. Relationship conflict will quickly consume all the attention and energy of an organization, leaving little time to accomplish profitable goals. Catch it quickly and sit the parties down to discuss the friction between them. More than 90 percent of the time, I have found that the culprits in relationship conflict are misperception, misunderstanding, or jumping to conclusions. Have a third-party facilitator break the topics into bite-sized pieces until the misperception can be identified. Then take steps to repair the relationship by having each person name three skills they admire in the other person. Once the core misunderstanding is clarified and removed, this becomes easier than you might initially think.


What can you do to bring conflict to a reasonable resolution? How might a resolution be beneficial to everyone involved? The ultimate goal of resolving conflict is to increase everyone’s understanding of what happened, why it happened, and what can be learned from it so it doesn’t happen again. Conflict isn’t bad. In fact, it’s a vital part of a successful company. Knowing when to encourage conflict in a manageable and productive way, knowing how to spot it early and slow it down if necessary, and knowing the natural stages of conflict’s life cycle can all lead to highly productive outcomes. Knowledge about conflict and the skills needed to manage it successfully are needed to get the best out of yourself. People who can help an organization overcome conflict and shed the “us vs. them” culture are worth their weight in gold. Learn these skills and make a difference in your company. 


About The Author

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Kelly Graves

Kelly Graves is the CEO of Internal Business Solutions, which exists to help organizations overcome their most daunting challenges. The Internal Business Solutions team understands that most, if not all, organizational problems—whether technical, financial, structural, etc.—hinge on improving human communication and processes. Contact Graves at Kelly@InternalBusinessSolutions.com or call (530) 321-5309. Click here to sign up for his free newsletter.