Four ways to stop the finger-pointing

Most important work in organisations is not done by one person in isolation; it most often involves individuals and groups working together. In this article we make four simple suggestions for stopping the finger-pointing and restoring harmony.

Why is it so unusual to see individuals and groups working genuinely harmoniously together? And why do some groups stop collaborating, preferring to spend most of their energies finger-pointing the other group?

It usually comes from the past and our interpretation of that past behaviour.

For example, working recently with a number of departments which together form a complete manufacturing process, we asked the main protagonists what they thought ‘they’ (the other departments) didn’t do well. I also asked them what they thought ‘we’ (their own group) didn’t do well. Then we put all the lists up on the wall and compared them. The most important discovery was that the lists did not match. One group’s perception of the other’s shortcomings was not consistent with the other group’s perception of themselves – at all.

In discussion with both groups it became clear that the items on the lists were all perceptions, not actual observable events. It wasn’t incidents and actions that caused the negative attitude to the other group but the conclusions that each group came to.

The conclusions they drew weren’t logical but based on a strong desire to make the behaviour of the ‘other lot’ mean something. This conclusion then became ‘the truth about them’ in the folklore of each group – and bingo, a group mindset was created: ‘they’re out to get us’, ‘they’re useless’, ‘you can’t trust them’, ‘(s)he doesn’t know what (s)he is talking about’. Was any of this true? Objectively of course not, but within each group it was a meaning that everyone signed up to.

So we make up conclusions about ‘them’ which form a group mindset. And there comes a tipping point where initial conclusions become the ‘truth’ about ‘them’. If it’s negative more than positive, then collaboration goes out of the window. ‘We’ look for examples of ‘their’ behaviour that back up our conclusion, and bang goes any chance that meetings between the groups and their managers will have any effect.

So what can you do to interrupt this process?

  1. Start by believing that the vast majority of people come to work to do a good job and try their hardest.
  2. Look for actions, results and observable behaviour and deal only with these.
  3. Refuse to play the game of speculating on people’s motives and personalities, and discourage others in your team from doing it too. If it looks as if ‘they’ are trying to be difficult, assume you are wrong (see 1 above) and ask more questions.

Sit down and talk, always trying to find common ground and working together to move towards a solution that will work for both parties – there nearly always is one.

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