Q: I work in a high-stress, high-stakes setting, and lately I find myself fighting an “us vs. them” mentality. It’s not coming from other teams I work with — it’s inside myself. How do I overcome this so that we can continue to progress?
Amber, 38, sales director
A: The first step is to recognize the issue, so well done! You can cross that off your list.
This isn’t trivial, by the way.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that others are causing your feelings. This deflects responsibility and exacerbates the issue, as you then amplify your own feelings with blame for others.
At the same time, there’s work to do to understand the triggers that raise these feelings and ways to address them.
First, reflect on differences of opinion that you have had with others.
Think broadly, considering examples at work, home, and other aspects of your life.
When do these differences resolve amicably? When do they trigger a strong negative reaction for you?
Then, most importantly, consider the differences between the situations, noticing the effect of both internal and external factors.
You may react differently if you are dealing with people with more seniority or authority than you, for example. If you are more extroverted, you may feel that introverts are withholding information; if it’s vice versa, you may feel like extroverts are trying to dominate you.
Maybe there are internal factors that set you up to be defensive.
If you are not fully prepared, are behind on timelines, or have made a decision that didn’t turn out as hoped, you may be prone to deflect against others.
As you sort this out, it’s likely that your deepened self-awareness will reduce your tendency to point fingers at others.
There are other steps to take to prevent this negativity.
Learn from situations in your past where disagreements resolved well and develop specific strategies that you can use to your benefit.
Remember that legitimate disagreements are healthy and productive.
Notice how you feel when the “us vs. them” urge is coming up. Is your body tense? Do you feel crabby? Are you saying things like, “they always …” or “they never …”
When you get these signs, step back, take some deep breaths, and think about how you will choose to interact.
Invest in preventive work. Spend time understanding your colleagues’ needs while you are not in a pressure situation.
If you don’t work in the same location, try to set up some in-person time. If you do work in the same office, consider an off-site meeting to get away from your usual distractions.
Recognize that your attitude may already have done some damage.
Offer apologies where needed, acknowledging that you may have taken your tension out on the team. Then promise to do better, and follow through. Watch out for fake apologies, “I’m sorry if you were offended,” as those just make things worse.
Finally, there is one tactic that can help you in virtually any situation: be a listener.
Ask questions and focus on understanding others’ points of view. Find the common ground so that you can operate as a unified group.
What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, leadership coach and owner of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.