Last week I read an article about a new book – The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart by Bill Bishop. Bill postulates that Americans, like never before, are able to identify and move to be close to other people with whom they share values, ideas, and perspectives.
On the surface that doesn't seem like a bad thing. It’s comforting to be able to speak freely with people who have the same perspective as you. It’s reassuring to have others back you up with a hearty, “You got that right!” when you make a point. It’s also potentially destructive to individual thinking and the overall quality of life for a community, a state, and our country.
Bill’s point is that when people aren't rubbing elbows with others who have different points of view, their thinking tends to become very narrow – especially when it’s continuously reinforced by folks who agree with them. And when people on the other side are doing the same thing, it’s only a short step from there to “us versus them” and “if you’re not with us you’re against us.” Division. Strife. Congress.
A very common problem in business is “suboptimization” – also known as “local optimization.” It means that a portion of a business is great while the rest of the business is not – and as a result the entire business is much less than it could be.
My company once worked with a business where local optimization was rampant. Different departments looked out for their part of the business first, and the overall business last. When we pointed out that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, one supervisor stabbed his finger at us and shouted, “Look! I don’t get rewarded for making a strong chain. My job is to make sure I have the strongest, shiniest link ever – and if I have to take from other links to do it, I damned well will!” Needless to say, this fellow wasn't in the company long – not because we ratted him out, but because it quickly became clear what (or who) was causing problems for the company.
When people, in business and elsewhere, get overly focused on their particular perspective, it can create an echo chamber where everyone inside hears the same messages reinforced over and over. That reinforcement can cause us to be certain we’re right when it’s likely we’re not, and then encourage us to take actions that don’t help the whole.
Actions you can take today
Here are two actions to get your organization working better together.
- Examine your organization’s goal and reward systems. Nine times out of ten these systems were set up to recognize individual or functional group excellence and not overall organization effectiveness. If instead, you set joint goals that can only be achieved through cooperation, you can help people have a bigger reason to work together. You could even take a page from Bill’s book and mix people up – create a cross-functional team to address the lack of overall excellence. (Make sure they have good facilitation or bunkers may begin cropping up!)
- Be a real leader and make a difference. When leaders put aside their own perspectives to really understand what “the other side” is saying and only then take collective action, everyone can win. When leaders are willing to step away from any one faction and strive for a solution that simultaneously meets the needs of everyone involved, everyone can win. Real leaders listen and act for the good of the whole.