Divide & Conquer; Building & Destroying Teams – Part 2

In Part 1 we discussed how to build a team by dividing an organization’s goals and objectives into tasks and sub-tasks. We then divided the whole group of people into smaller teams based on their knowledge, skill, abilities, experience, and interests. All of this, in the end provides an organization with some form of profit. We divided to build teams and with some hope on my part, the organization’s leadership understands this is just the beginning of something great… a great success or a great failure.

Now, oh now, we get to look at how dividing can be destructive. This becomes a down-and-dirty conversation about how management can behave in ways which make us all stop, get that messed up look on our face, and scratch our head in pure wonder. I will not claim division is all bad and I may choose to detail how dividing a large group can galvanize the group towards something good, but I may also choose to discuss that topic alone at another time (teaser alert).

Throughout time groups of people have been divided to maintain control, mostly this is referred to as social control. Without going into a highly argumentative diatribe, I will say this, social control is real and very necessary to maintain civility within a momentous global population. Some of the tactics utilized to maintain social control are very questionable, but I will leave those to your thoughts and not interject my opinions.

In business managers find it is easier to control smaller groups of people. I will step out on a branch here and state the more complex and cognitively straining the smaller the group the better for management. Highly intelligent people working on very complex projects are a real threat to management if let to congregate in large numbers. So here lies Tactic 1, management will divide the more cognitive and complex tasks into several sub-tasks to almost the break-even point of profit to segregate the most intelligent employees. Intelligent employees ask far too many questions and to minimize the threat of making management appear incompetent, management will ensure only a small number of highly intelligent workers are in any specific group. It sounds far worse than it actually is, but I challenge you to stop and look around you at the dynamics of your own work team composition.

Tactic 1 is related to the rise of labor unions in modern industrialized business. Management at the time of the Industrial Revolution in the United States at the turn of the 20th Century. People were allowed to freely mingle in the workplace and the smartest ones initiated a movement towards worker rights and thus, the inception of labor unions began! The intelligent workers organized the average workers and manipulated them to strike and stop production in order to secure improved working conditions, adequate benefits, and reasonable compensation. Management attempted to break unionization, but the fullness of understanding of factory work was less sophisticated during the Industrial Revolution and Tactic 1 was not even on the horizon for management to consider.

Tactic 1 is very much a broad organizational component today and has led to, what I consider the weakening of labor unions (perhaps another topic for another time). Today, business leaders and managers understand it is vital to have smaller teams to take on the more cerebral tasks and even small teams to do very repetitive jobs. One of the biggest negatives for an organization is the larger the organization the more managers are needed to maintain Tactic 1.

With more managers in the organization there are more levels of management. Yes, I am purposefully not using the term leader or leadership at this point because in context people have been comodified and are being managed. I am certainly not attempting to dehumanize or rob anyone of their individuality, but a lot of management effort goes into determining the correct composition of a group and then to build a team. We sometimes do not realize the effort which goes into Tactic 1, but it is real and it is a difficult task.

There are more managers in an organization to support smaller groups and build teams. Sometimes and organization gets complacent and allows more managers than are necessary. Workers are not stupid. Workers know when there is a bullshit manager who is grossly incompetent. This is Destruction 1, too many managers who have zero clue what they are doing within or to a group. Raise the proverbial bullshit flag.

No manager goes to work in the morning and says, “Gee, I really want to destroy my team and make my life a living misery where I’ll most likely end up being hated by those I have to lead or worse yet, I could end up in the unemployment line.” I confess, this is not a rule of absolutes, I have met one or two managers who really could give two rats’ asses about people. Just because a person is elevated to a formal management position does not mean that person knows Jack Diddly about being a leader. And sometimes true injustice happens and the worst managers in the world get promoted to a higher position of authority. Scratch your head, I certainly have and most like will again.

Destruction 2, the manager with a personal agenda and no organizational vision. Everyone has heard the mantra, “Be professional, check your personal issues at the door,” but we all know many do not heed this advice at all. Unfortunately, it appears most who carry personal agendas are ladder climbing managers. The manager who will throw anyone under the bus to get an attaboy from the higher ups. First-level, front-line, floor managers are the key holders, they determine what senior managers and leaders get to see and hear. Being a key holder gives them the ability to chase their personal agenda. It is very clear to those looking up from below, but everyone is looking up and rarely looks back to see what is going on below them. This is nature for the predator, this is why we have forward looking eyes, because we are apex predators and is our nature to look forward or upwards for something more. The real destruction is this, the team is ignored and apathy sets in to weaken the team to a group of independent individuals with little to no identity as a team. A team has to have a leader and most look to the formal manager to fill the role of leader.

Destruction 3, myths, mis-truths, and lies. Division is build on smoke and mirrors. Mushrooms, keep ’em in the dark and feed ’em shit. Spread rumors like wildfire to weaken and drive sharp wooden spikes between teammates. Here is a quick story, it is true and really draws a sharp image of Destruction 3.

The company I work for started a new safety initiative. Our team manager, Joe,  came to our site for his monthly visit and rolled out the safety initiative. Joe asked us all in a team meeting if there was anything we wanted to focus on to get us into this new mindset of safety awareness.

Our team decided to take on changing the way we get product. Our product comes to us in a rusty tub that is about 30 inches high and 5′ by 4′. Product can weigh anywhere from a few ounces to over a 100 lbs. We do not have access to any lifting devices so everything in the rusty tub has to be manually removed by us. By the end of the meeting we had decided to change the rusty tub through a rigorous brainstorming session where we discussed many alternatives.

The meeting ended and Joe assigned follow-up for the safety initiative to the Team Lead, Stan. We all went our separate ways back to work. Stan sent out a nice set of meeting notes the next morning and we joked about it as we moved into our daily tasks.

We heard nothing else for a couple of months. Joe was unable to come to our site for two months because of organizational commitments, so we were pretty much rudderless for a substantial amount of time. Stan did not grab hold of the safety initiative and so apathy set in. The rusty tub kept showing up and we kept lifting heavy product with our backs because there was no other way.

Joe came down and we had our team meeting. One person brought up what was going on with the rusty tub. Joe stated that Stan was working on it and we had a solution. Time ran out and apathy was well rooted. We all went on our merry ways back to work.

About six months after kicking off the safety initiative we got an email from our Product Services Department informing us they had resolved our rusty tub issue and we would be getting a brand new ergonomic transport system for our product. Several teammates commented on how this became a Product Services issue. Stan said Joe decided to push it to Product Services to save our safety budget for other needs.

12 months after our team decided the rusty tub was a safety issue we still did not have a resolution and attrition had supplanted apathy. We did not talk about the rusty tub anymore. Joe never brought it up in meetings. Stan never kept us up to date on the progress. Product Services was silent.

About 18 months into this debacle and one of our teammates heard a Product Services employee was injured assembling our new transport system. Stan sent out a group email letting us all know there was a short delay in the projected delivery of our new transport system.

We are now at the 24 month mark from when we identified this rusty tub as a serious safety issue. Joe is on site for his monthly visit. We are sitting in our team meeting and someone brings up the rusty tub and Joe says, “What? I thought that was taken care of over a year ago?”

One person said in reply to Joe, “Are you kidding us? You’ve walked by that rusty piece of shit at least 100 times in the last year, not to mention probably 10 times today and probably not more than 40 minutes ago. Do you just not give a shit about us?”

Three months later we got our new transport system. It really was not ergonomically better than the rusty tub. It cost about $5,000 and it injured a coworker from Product Services who was off work for nearly a year. The idea was for this transport system to be moved by a forklift, but it was so massive in size the forklift drivers refused to move it. Now, we have to manually load and unload it like before. Unlike the rusty tub the new transport system requires each individual upstream process to bring their products to us instead of a central area like before. We just created an opportunity for more people to interact with an unsafe transport system and added time and damage to product by causing additional movements of product.

Destruction 3, oblivion on the part of the manager caused apathy and then attrition. Lull them to sleep and the topic becomes dead. As you read the story, find the missed opportunities.

The destruction of a team is simple, show little to no interest, let inadequacies shine through, lie, cheat, and be an ass. Those will all surely put a team six feet under. It is a leader who is needed. Someone who cares, is willing to listen, and most importantly wants to take action is one who will lead a team. There are more destructive forces out there to break teams, but these are the three really big ones which fall under Tactic 1.

Author: Gary

I am a Native Oregonian and grew up on the south side of the central coast in the small town of Bandon. After serving in the US Navy for 11 years I returned home to pursue my passion in leadership. I graduated from the University of Oregon with two degrees in Sociology and Planning, Public Policy, & Management. After a few years of working I returned to academic pursuits. I earned my Masters of Business Administration with a heavy emphasis on Servant Leadership from Northwest Christian University. Life took a twist and I left the Eugene, Oregon area and moved to the Portland, Oregon circus! I currently work for a very large company and have enjoyed great benefits which have allowed me to continue my life long pursuit of knowledge. I have completed Six Sigma Master Black Belt coursework with Villanova University as well as a certificate from University of Notre Dame in Executive Management. Recently, I earned my second Master's Degree from Michigan State University in Management, Strategy, & Leadership. I have lived a pretty good life and I keep things honest. No mincing of words from me and sometimes that means I drop a little bomb in my language. Please, forgive me if my language becomes a little brutish. I pride myself on being able to learn from anyone and any circumstance.

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