My wise minister in London once described an exercise at a retreat of ministers. They were assigned a task and then put into small groups. Over time, the groups grew, joined by other groups. When the first couple of groups joined, the people already in the room made space for the newcomers, welcomed them and introduced themselves. As more and more people joined, the welcome for the new folks waned until finally, the latest newcomers were left to stand on the edge of the room, completely unacknowledged. When the task was finished, the entire seminar reconvened only to discover that the real task had been to understand what it felt like to be the outsider in a group – and how, over time, the pre-existing group ceases to make newcomers welcome.
As someone who has moved 40 times and attended many schools and often been the outsider, I now look to see what kind of welcome I receive when I first show up. At most Unitarian churches, I attend the service, don’t wear a name tag and I am consistently approached at the end of the service by someone whose job it is to welcome newcomers. And the 280 Group is an unbelievably welcoming organization as was Perforce where I only joined them on a very temporary basis, but was sought out and welcomed by everyone from the CEO on down.
So, why is this so important? Because in most of our lives, there is a group who is the ‘they.’ If you work with a distributed Agile development team, the remote people are ‘they.’ If you are the remote product manager for a far away development team, you are ‘they.’
And deciding that there exists and ‘us’ and a ‘them’ means that you have just added a barrier to real understanding of each other’s situation. This gets in the way of both getting your job done well and being happy at getting the work done. A concerted effort is needed to create a better and ultimately, more productive, work environment.
How do you move beyond ‘us’ and ‘them?’
1) Recognize that this is an issue.
Listen to your own language and the language that others use around you. During World War II, General Eisenhower, in charge of the allied war effort in Europe, once removed an American officer, not because he’d called an English officer a name, but he called him an English so and so.*
2) Understand the source of the ‘us’ vs ‘them’ mentality.
It may be distance, it may be that the groups are even in two different buildings. It may come from experienced vs inexperienced folks on the team. Write the sources down – and then look at creative ways to overcome them.
3) Create opportunities for rapport building.
It’s very hard to consider someone an outsider when you’ve shared a positive experience together. In negotiation, it’s one of the first things that needs to be done: understand the other person as an individual and it’s much, much harder to dismiss them as ‘the other.’
One product manager was based on a different continent and came from a very different background from his development team. His company didn’t have the budget for him travel to meet them, so I suggested that he insist on video conferencing and then made sure that what was visible in the screen was highly individual and memorable. He needed visual clues for the folks on the other side to start the conversation at a personal level. Hawaiian t-shirts or interesting pictures behind him with cultural references to the folks he was speaking with. There were many opportunities for him to be recognized as an individual to the team and then become part of their team.
One remote Product Manager always brought a certain kind of locally made chocolate with her when she arrived in the office. Again, it made an occasion of her arrival and she was never seen as an outsider.
4) Mix teams up.
I truly believe that mixed groups create far and away better results than homogeneous teams. So, build teams that involve people from different backgrounds, experience levels for both fun activities and work related projects. Inevitably, the teams where people are not all the same, but have a common goal will bring out a huge variety of skills, experiences and resources to the table with amazing results. And by creating these teams, you reduce the opportunities for certain groups to be considered outsiders.
5) Set inclusive standards – and keep to them.
Much like Eisenhower, you lead a group of people who are working on great products, usually with a lot to do and lots of opportunities to lose your way. Decide not only on the product schedule, features and benefits, but how you are going to combat the ‘us’ vs ‘them’ mentality. Get creative, and once your standards are in place, stick to them. I like how this American who heads up a very divisive South African university in an area known for bitter racism (At one time under Apartheid, no person of Indian origin was allowed to live in the entire Orange Free State) tackled these issues head on.
Don’t let yourself remain an outsider and make sure that no one else does. As a Product Manager, you lead people through influence. Use your power pro-actively to create teams where we are all ‘us.’
* I searched for the source of this reference, but can’t find it. I remember it so vividly, I included it. If you find it, please let me know. It isn’t in one of my favorite WWII reads of all time.