Breaking Down Those Organizational Walls

"Mr. Gorbachev, Tear down this wall!"
A number of years ago I was fortunate to be on the opening team of a new theme park in California. I was one of the first brought on in my department, and in those initial months as the park was being built it was a thrill to watch the teamwork and vision take root. As we brought more people on board and got closer to opening day, that momentum continued and the teamwork and excitement flourished.

Then came the Grand Opening.

In an seeming instant, that teamwork and mutual respect across each department came to a halt. No one was willing to help out anymore. It seemed as though everyone was immersed in "survival mode" and were just trying to manage their way through each day.

It didn't get better for quite some time. Infighting started to occur on some levels. Territory wars ensued. The pecking order of which department was more important than the other appeared center stage. Stress started to skyrocket. No one thought this fun place to work was much fun anymore.

But thankfully, it didn't last. It wasn't until almost a year later when a few of the department heads realized what was going on and made a concerted effort to bridge those gaps and draw the entire team together again. In large part they were successful, but a few solid walls remained for quite a while.

This is just one example of the walls that individuals or teams put up within organizations. These actions and behaviors end up becoming barriers to communication and effective teamwork. What results from their presence is animosity, communication breakdown, lessened morale, and ineffectiveness .

When teams put up walls, it makes it difficult for other departments to have the synergy and leverage of the organization's resources. When individuals put up walls, it will lead to people choosing sides with certain others, and this fractures the team even further.

 Why would anyone erect walls within an organization? Here are some reasons why that happens:

Power struggle. Individuals and departments that put up walls state to everyone else in a sense to leave them alone, they're far to important to deal with the non-essential departments. They want things done their way, without any input or interference from others. They feel that if they can squelch other input they can control the entire course of events.

Survival Mode. As was the case in my example. This was precisely the prevailing attitude that took over the park. Everyone was completely overwhelmed and couldn't see the proverbial forest through the trees. They were caught in the heat of battle, and wouldn't stop to get a bird's eye view of the front.

Lack of Team Buy-In. Groups that aren't part of the overall company mission will have little to offer the rest of the organization. They don't help because they don't see the good it will do.

Team Pride - "We're Better Than You." While slightly similar to a power struggle, these are the people or teams that claim they can do no wrong. They will not take any criticism lightly, if at all. They are resistant to change, and look down at others even if those others outperform them.

False perceptions. There are a good many times where other teams or individuals develop a false notion of what is truly going on. They put up walls because of a perceived infraction, or because they didn't get the outcome they desired. Many times they may not have the complete facts of a given situation and react to an incorrect conclusion.

Poor communication. This barrier can even be an unintended wall. Lack of good communication can send mixed messages or aloofness, complacency, and unwillingness that others will fell alienated and not bother to interact with those parties. They may even avoid them altogether.

Great leaders don't like walls.

Great leaders know how to overcome these obstacles. They cross the aisle, and bridge the gap that separates factions. They know that any walls are drag factors that will slow down progress and possibly sabotage the mission. So the walls must be struck down in order to move forward.

How to Break Down Organizational Walls

Be the Initiator. It starts with yourself. Be the one to muster the courage to instigate a change. Set aside any bias. Reach out to others and meet with them. Get your team to understand those other teams of people without bias as well..

Open Up Communications. As a natural extension for being the initiator, start the conversation by acknowledging that you feel there are walls between both parties. If need be, acknowledge you and/or your team's mistakes and take steps to correct if necessary. Then address the issues at hand. Talk things over. It may take a number of meetings, but this gets the ball rolling in the right direction.

Seek to Understand Their Views. Yes, the fifth habit from Steven Covey, and an essential one. Ask the other party their viewpoint, and how they see things. Maybe they don't see walls at all. Maybe they feel they are necessary for them to do their job. Pose open-ended question to get them to express their views. You may realize there is more to the walls than your own viewpoint.

Let Them Know their Value. Acknowledge what they do well, and why you admire them as part of the organization. Remind them, and yourself, what they bring to the table in the company. Find something to sincerely build them up on, and lay a foundation for mutual respect and cooperation.

State Common Vision within the Company. It's always good to bring the organization's goals into the picture. This reminds everyone that there is a bigger mission than either team or individual, and it put's everyone's agendas into overall perspective. It may just be the one thing to make the other party realize that we're all on the same team.

Be Persistent. As I mentioned earlier, walls may take some time to come crumbling down. Keep swinging. Don't give up. You may not only remove the barriers altogether, but you may inherit a staunch ally in someone who trusts you to cooperate and communicate open and honestly with them.

What walls can you see that need tearing down? Are there any you've put up that need removing? Keep kicking down those walls, and watch people and teams open up.


(image courtesy of via Reuters Pictures)

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