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Facing an 'Us vs. Them' Mentality at Work? Here's How to Break the Divide

Donald B. Stephens

Guest Contributor

The longest running sitcom in America, "The Simpsons," owes much of its popularity to Homer Simpson; a selfish, slovenly adorable character whose single goal at work is to get away with as much goofing off as possible, even if it means risking a nuclear melt-down.

While Homer is a parody of the average American worker—taken to impossible extremes—he does represent a condition that affects much of the working class: an "us versus them" mentality. Homer does not see himself as a key contributor in his company, but rather as just another cog in the wheel—an attitude that can lead to a loss of productivity and effectiveness.

So, how does a business fight this prevailing employee attitude, and what is HR's role in the process?

Embrace Transparency — Down to the Bottom Line

HR's current favorite buzz-word is employee engagement, with little wonder. In the October 2015 study titled "Technology-Enabled Employee Engagement: Top Five Features Your HCM System Should Have," the Aberdeen Group found that companies with dedicated engagement programs experienced a 26 percent greater annual revenue increase on average. They cited five enablers for engagement, two of which I believe are the most relevant to HR: "open communication" and "recognition."

The Aberdeen report emphasized that part of your engagement plan should provide employees with a stronger connection to the company's purpose. For many companies, this translates to sharing corporate processes, values, goals, visions and does-and-don'ts, but they rarely venture into sharing financial information or explaining to a new-hire how she fits into the overall profitability of her department.

However, communicating about financials may be the missing piece of your engagement puzzle. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, authors Bill Fotsch and John Case explain how sharing key financial numbers with employees has proven to be even more effective for engagement than employee stock ownership.

It's Not About the Spreadsheet

As human resources controls the new-hire orientation and sets the tone for employment, you're in a special position to be transparent from the start. But if you just hand new-hires or tenured employees a financial sheet and expect them to be more engaged, you have missed the point altogether.

The idea is to give every employee a sense of how their jobs impact the bottom-line. No matter how low on the totem pole workers are, for the sake of future employment and salary increases, they want the business to succeed. Explaining to the janitors that their work of diligently cleaning the facilities helped potential clients feel positive about your business—which was an essential part of achieving a 25 percent profit margin last month—will help them see their jobs in a new light.

Fostch and Case found that conversations like this not only instills pride in a lower-level employee's work, but also encourages an entrepreneurial spirit as employees look for new ways to save money and increase productivity for better margins.

The Power of Involvement

In a Wall Street Journal report titled "What Your Employees Don't Know Will Hurt You," the author tells the story of a fast-food outlet where the young employees were taught how to read a simple financial statement. The managers would post a weekly profitability chart on the wall of the breakroom, and bonuses were paid based on how well the business was doing.

It didn't take long for everyone to become interested in how they could contribute to making the profit margin grow. Whether you celebrate reaching your financial target with a cash payout or a Friday pizza party, there needs to be some tangible way to cement the idea that everyone in the company is important and involved in financial success—and that it takes group effort to turn a profit.

A Battle on all Fronts

Of course, HR will also have to convince upper management that financial transparency is the right path to take. Sometimes the "us versus them" attitude comes from the top of the organization, too. Traditions are hard to overcome, but once you've armed yourself with the right information to convince executives of the power of transparency, victory will be within your grasp.

However, the battle is not over. Your recognition and rewards program will need to be revamped and designed to reflect your new culture of openness. Frontline managers will need to be brought onboard so that they too understand the new philosophy. Once everyone is fighting for the same team, "us versus them" will refer only to your competition—and I pity those who fight for your share of the market!

Photo: Creative Commons

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