Us vs. Them

I remember the conversation with this senior executive my first week at my federal agency in 2009. She said there were two groups of people at our agency–blue collar workers, and everyone else. “You need to remember that at all times,” she remarked.

I did not think very much about her statement until her message started resonating as I experienced the culture and climate of the agency. Blue collar workers referred to employees who worked in the field, campus locations, call-centers and walk in customer service offices. The rest of us white collar folks labored in Headquarters as knowledge and information workers who required little supervision.

I saw this “us vs. them” atmosphere during my first visit to a field office. When I told them I was from Headquarters, an eerie chill entered the conversation. The entire day was a wrestling contest in building trust. I could not wait to get on the train and go home.

Stu Cohen from Linkage, a leadership development company, claims he see this “us vs. them” mentality in workplaces where employees are the “us” and leaders are the “them.” Cohen claims the health care industry uses terms like “scrubs vs. suits” or the construction sector that refers to itself as “concrete vs. carpet.” He indicated the concrete vs. carpet divide was so deep in this particular organization that they organized themselves into opposing teams using these divisive terms during company picnics, teambuilding exercises and softball games.

The “us vs. them” labels go by other names-insiders vs. outsiders, silver spoons vs. scrappers, management vs. union, supervisor vs. employee and dominant group vs. subordinate group. Regardless of the terms used, the “us vs. them” outlook imposes taxes on our workplaces in the form of distrust.

What is so sad about the “us vs. them” approach in the federal sector is how it undermines the strengths of those that reside at the bottom of our organizations. Dennis Jaffe, Glen Tobe and Cynthia Scott write about the neglect of the bottom feeders in our office food chains in their book, “Rekindling Commitment: How to Revitalize Yourself, Your Work, and Your Organization.”

They claim that when it comes to knowing the problems in an organization:

• 4% are known to top management.
• 9% are known by middle management.
• 74% are known by front-line supervisors.
• 100% are known by employees.

Who counts in your workplace? Hopefully everyone, including those public servants forgotten by their leaders and toiling away at the bottom of our organization in anonymity and silence; those among us who know 100% of the problems in our workplaces along with 100% of the answers.

As a member of the “them” team, we are just waiting for the “us” crowd to invite us into the conversation.

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