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LEADERSHIP: The Us vs. Them Mentality – Bridging the Gap Between Operation & Administration

Judging by the amount of times I’ve run into this phenomenon it’s probably safe to assume that most people have found themselves, somewhere along the way, in the midst of a battle between the operations side of the house, and the corporate / executive side.  Now you might be asking yourself, I’m not really sure what he’s talking about, so let me clarify. Have you ever used any of the following terms to refer to the decision-making group in an organization: the people on the hill, ‘downtown’, headquarters, ‘corporate’, the administration, or my favorite the ubiquitous ‘them’… and if not you, how about someone else on your team?

I remember thinking to myself when I was working in higher education, how the landscape of the institution can even lend itself to create this divide – see, whenever a decision was made by the administration that the staff or faculty disagreed with, they would refer to that decision as being made by ‘the Hill’, because on campus, the administrative offices were literally up on a hill, giving new meaning to the phrase ‘top down structure.’ Think that’s funny, at my alma-mater the administrative offices were in a high-rise building that was referred to as ‘The Tower.’

Interestingly enough, I’ve never heard an executive say that he/she approved of or enjoyed the gap that existed between those who made the decisions and the group of individuals who had to implement them, so why do we keep making decisions that re-enforce the gap instead of minimize it?

This may come as a shock, but the staff of an organization doesn’t just wake up one day and say ‘today we’ve decided to enter into battle with the administration.’  Far from it actually. Unfortunately, the contempt that is present between these groups has probably grown over time and the behavior that is seen now, stems from a lack of trust or a belief that those making the decisions have the best interest of the individual in mind.

So how do we begin to bridge this virtual gap?

My first suggestion is that you get to the root of the problem, because up until now, any push back you’ve been feeling has simply been a symptom of a much deeper problem. This suggestion is not just for the executive, but for anyone that is experiencing this problem.  Chances are it wasn’t the recent decision to require two signatures on purchase orders that caused you to lose faith; so what was it, and be sure to dig deep.  Start by asking yourself ‘why’ and for each time you come up with what you think is the cause, ask yourself ‘why.’  Typically if you can go back at least five ‘whys’ you’ll find yourself close to the root cause. Download this chart to help.

The next suggestion is obvious, but we don’t always know how to do it, and that is to open lines of communication. The biggest rifts I’ve seen in organizations have come from inadequate communication. It’s a lot like CPR: Whether you do it well or not, it’s better than not doing it at all.  While we all want it to be done well, many times we forego communicating for the fear of getting it wrong. So where do we start?  How about simply eating lunch in a common area, which indirectly will give off a feeling of openness? This may be difficult for some of us who prefer limited interaction, but I’ve never known someone to build a bridge without ever going to the river.

For the executives in the room, another effective way of increasing communication is to create a monthly communiqué typically called ‘From the desk of…” This letter can be done on paper or through email, and simply highlights successes or issues within the organization. My one caveat to this is KIS – Keep It Simple… notice I left off the second ‘s.’  More is less, especially if you’re committed to doing this on a regular basis. Download this template to help you get started.

My last suggestion to get this process moving is to begin ‘doing’ trust building behaviors. See, trust is identified as a combination of character and competence, so whatever behaviors you begin with, make sure they support these areas.  For example, if you’re someone who has broken promises in the past, you have violated both character and competence; you have laid the foundation for people to see you as unethical for not believing promises are important, as well as incompetent for being unable to follow through on your promise.  This is a hard one to overcome, so don’t try to eat the elephant in one sitting; do it one bit at a time.  Start by ensuring that you follow through with promises going forward. This could be done by making sure deadlines are met, or better yet, are completed early.  Character is the harder of these two to build, so start small and be willing to stick with it.  You will need a lot of time and internal strength to win this one back. Bring value to your words by using ‘Intent and Consent.’ (i.e. My intent with making this decision is to _____________________; would that be ok with you?). Read more about the cost of Trust on an organization in this post.

Now, if you’re a part of the group that has lost trust, there is a responsibility that you have to try and mend the bridge as well, if not for your benefit, for that of the organization. Whether you want to build a better relationship or not, it would be hard for one to dismiss the idea that it is in their best interest to be a part of an organization that is not working at its peak.  And if you’re sitting there saying, “why should I have to do it,” my response to you would be, if not you, then who?

Unfortunately, bridges don’t start in the middle.



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