The Thing About Walls

stone-wallFor thirty years, a twelve foot high wall of concrete divided the cities of East and West Berlin. Its official name was the “Anti-Fascist Protective Wall,” but to the world it was simply the “Berlin Wall.” It served as both a physical barrier and a visual reminder of the differences in ideology held by the governing powers of post-World War II Germany. Families were split apart, their houses torn down, and 300 watch towers were erected to guard against unauthorized border crossings.

For those of us who remember, the dismantling of the wall in the early 1990’s represented a new era. It allowed for the free exchange of both goods and ideas. It ignited a cultural shift in Germany that resonated around the world. Today, what remains of the wall provides a sobering reminder of just how much damage walls can create.

Of course, we don’t need steel or concrete to build walls do we? It seems we’ll use just about any excuse to separate ourselves from others – politics, economics, religion, race, gender – pick a reason, and we’ll build a wall to keep the sides apart. Our side is the best, and anyone who doesn’t agree must be the enemy, right?

Sadly, our businesses aren’t immune from this tendency to wall ourselves off. A difference of opinion is all it takes to create a difference of identity. Departments square off against each other. The frontline opposes management. This group knows better than the others. No one wants to budge, and while we continue our détente, the business suffers. The employees suffer. The customers suffer.

I see it, and I know you do too. I talk to too many of you every week who bemoan the state of the organization. “If only we could all get on the same page, we could do so much more…” The problem is real, and it’s ours to solve.

We have to stop viewing unity in terms of what we have to lose. We have a selfishness problem in corporate America. We seem to think that compromising equates to losing. We have an all-or-nothing perspective. “If I can’t have it 100% my way then I won’t play at all.” We hold on to what used to be or what ought to be. But by holding on tight to the past, or ignoring anything but the perfect solution, we miss out on what could be. While we sit and stew about our differences, opportunity for a better future passes us by.

A couple of years ago, I took a trip to Tennessee and got to spend a couple of days hanging out with family. One afternoon, I was playing with my nephews and one of them asked me for a candy bar. He’s pretty young, so I declined to give it to him, feeling my brother and sister-in-law wouldn’t want him to have so much sugar. Without missing a beat, my nephew looked at me and suggested “we could share.” I asked him what that word ‘sharing’ meant. He replied “sharing means everybody gets some.”

We’ve simply got to learn how to get along. We’ve got to stop looking for the differences, and start looking for the similarities. You find what you go looking for – what are you looking for?

We have to stop choosing to do things differently. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone’s told me “We do things differently out here.” This makes no sense. Unless there’s a very real reason – like differences in technology or significant variances in market conditions – there’s no excuse for similar functions within the same company to operate differently. Heck, I can go to any fast food restaurant and order a meal that tastes just like it would in a location across the country. If they can get their act together, why can’t we?

You know what the issue is? Pride. We get our feelings hurt when something we like isn’t viewed as important by the rest of the organization. We get defensive when a practice we’ve come to value is in danger of being changed. So we make up excuses to be different. We convince ourselves that, for the good of the customer, or the employee, or the business, we just have to operate differently. While we espouse diversity, our actions create division.

We’ve simply got to start moving together. We’ve got to stop doing things our own way when there’s no good reason to. I’m reminded of an old proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I want to go far! Don’t you?

We have to stop withholding information from others. I have a relatively small work group, but recently we’ve really struggled with communicating effectively. We have weekly meetings and email back and forth constantly; yet not a month goes by that I don’t hear about some new initiative that someone’s been working on for weeks without sharing. By the time the rest of us are brought into the loop, large amounts of time and effort have been expended. Input that could have led to a better result goes unspoken and others miss out on benefiting from a great idea. The most frustrating part is – we’re on the same team!

I get it. Some people like to hold on to things out of ownership. There’s a sense of pride in crafting an idea, or document, or process. Sometimes, too, we forget that there might be others who have a stake in what we’re creating. But unless we’re dealing with a contract negotiation or nuclear codes, we should seek out ways to bring more people into the fold. Working on a strategic growth plan? Involve the team. Got a slick new resource in mind? Seek out an extra brain or two. Working to solve a problem? Ask those impacted to lend a hand. Great ideas are like dollar bills – they’re useless until you start spreading them around. While we hold on to information, we lose hold of potential.

We’ve simply got to start communicating better. We’ve got to stop leaving key players out of the conversation or waiting until the last “I” is dotted before sharing. Two heads are better than one, right? Isn’t work more fun and effective when you bring others in?

It’s so easy to build walls; and so very difficult to tear them down. If we’re to ever see real, sustainable improvement in the work culture, we have to stop erecting the very barriers that get in our way. Instead of building something that keeps us in place, let’s put our energy toward creating something that moves us forward. What do you say we build a bridge?


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