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Is Your Organization Digging Trenches or Building Bridges?

 

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Sherry M.B. Thatcher and Alyson Meister for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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We’re surrounded by entrenchment. In the U.S., we constantly hear of lawmakers unable to pass collaborative legislation because they’re entrenched in increasingly polarized positions. Stories of failed mergers and acquisitions populate the business press, as leaders attempting to blend cultures and groups remain entrenched in their way of leading and “their” group’s ways of working. And for those of us just trying to complete our own work, how often have we been derailed when other groups of people (those accountants, those marketing folks, those leaders) were entrenched in their view of the problem?

Entrenchment happens when an attitude, habit, or belief becomes so firmly established that it morphs from “what I believe” into “who I am,” and it makes change difficult and unlikely. In organizations, we often see the beginnings of entrenchment in groups and teams when individuals categorize themselves and others into subgroups. Subgroup entrenchment happens when group members believe that there are clear clusters of team members who have shared, specific views. This type of entrenchment is based on perceptions that a division between “us and them” exists, regardless of whether it actually does. Entrenched divisions are often seen as a state of being — that they’re fixed, stable, and not fluid. Most importantly, they’re often imbued with ideological significance, and this is where problems arise.

The Paradox of Entrenchment

Decades of research show that the perceived divisions across subgroups, sometimes called “faultlines,” can increase negative forms of conflict and decrease open communication, team commitment, innovation, and performance. The more entrenched subgroups feel, the harder it is to see across the divide and consider the perspective of the “other.” Unsurprisingly, this leads to higher potential for increased polarization and worse outcomes for the overall team.

That said, there’s an upside to entrenchment. The subgroups themselves can be quite content working together. Working in a small team with impenetrable boundaries can increase a sense of belonging, cohesion, and implicit acceptance. For example, marketers and accountants may have trouble working together, as each subgroup has different training and an implicit language, but enjoy interacting within their own teams for those same reasons.   

Organizational leaders can harness the benefits of subgroups while avoiding the potential pitfalls of entrenchment. Before building bridges across the divides and engaging subgroups in more positive ways, the first step is to understand the key divisive forces at play.

How to Spot Entrenchment

First, leaders must be acutely aware of the potential for (or the actual) division in their teams, based on a number of different attributes and identities. Not all subgroup types have the same effect — some can fuel innovation and constructive conflict, while others can be divisive and trigger polarization. Look out for subgroup types based on the following factors:

  • Spatial presence. Team members experience shared events differently depending on their location and the richness of interaction it allows. For example, in hybrid teams, remote team members may not be able to participate in group interactions as often or as vigorously as those who are co-located, creating a natural faultline. For those who are co-located, sharing informal and nonverbal behaviors allows members to quickly find things they have in common and hold side conversations, which can result in subgroups with different levels of shared information, trust, and commitment to plans of action.
  • Surface-level characteristics. These are factors like gender, race, age, and language. Subgroups based on these characteristics form most readily in face-to-face environments because similarity to other members is readily apparent. These subgroup types are generally associated with negative outcomes, as individuals from one subgroup infer and assume values of the other person or subgroup — for example, based on stereotypes associated with superficial characteristics. These assumptions cause reluctance and frustration in communicating across subgroups that ultimately results in more conflict and lower levels of performance.
  • Knowledge bases. Things like educational and functional background, previous work experience, and expertise predispose people to communicate in certain ways or to have certain mindsets. For example, in product development, the concerns of marketers may be very different from the concerns of the R&D team. Despite this, with good leadership, they’ll benefit from making the effort to understand one another and challenge their thinking, and this type of subgroup engagement is likely to lead to a positive outcome.
  • Deep-level identities. Our values, beliefs, religion, and ideas about morality pose the greatest risk of divisiveness because they’re based on our core assumptions about ourselves and the world, and being confronted with others who don’t share them can feel threatening. These subgroups typically take longer to emerge, yet in times where political divides and social movements permeate workplace interactions, the divisions lurk closely beneath the surface. Once these subgroups manifest, they’re likely to be easily entrenched and polarizing and can have destructive effects on team outcomes.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Sherry M.B. Thatcher is the J. Henry Fellers Professor of Business Administration at the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina. Specializing in team performance associated with faultlines, identity, and conflict, she currently serves as the Editor-in-Chief of the Academy of Management Review and the Chair of the Management Department.
Alyson Meister is a Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland. Specializing in the development of globally oriented, adaptive, and inclusive organizations, she has worked with thousands of executives, teams, and organizations from professional services to industrial goods and technology. Her research on identity and diversity, leadership, and team dynamics in organizations has appeared in several top-tier outlets. You can reach Alyson at Alyson.meister@imd.org.

 

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