Do you party with your cousin orgs more that your siblings?

I remember when it hit me. I had back to back meetings with two teams, and they were polar opposite experiences. In the first meeting, you would be hard pressed to know who belonged to which team. Everyone was problem solving and coming together for the customers.

Then we rolled into the next meeting, one that was silted and the air was filled with the pungent smell of CYA. Fingers were pointed, everyone was guarded with what they said, and the ball barely moved an inch. It was awful.

The stark contrast meant that I couldn’t help but compare. What was the root problem that was stopping the teams from working well together in the second example?

It could be many things of course:

  • Personality clashes between the teams
  • No clarity of ownership and purpose
  • Incentives being misaligned.

But it didn’t fit neatly into any of those buckets. Then I stepped up a level from thinking about the individuals and their personalities, and instead looked at the groups. And there it was. One of the groups was a close peer, with both of us reporting to the same immediate boss. The other was more removed, all part of the same family, but further up the tree.

This got me thinking about families.

I have witnessed interesting behavior where siblings can go at each other like cats and dogs, but when cousins are around everyone has a blast. With cousins there aren’t the same concerns with pecking order in the family, and instead you are left with super-friends… in that they are family, they will be around your whole life, and that you get the overall crazy of your particular family group. It also doesn’t hurt that generally when you gather with cousins it is to celebrate and chances are you end up with presents. You don’t have to live with them and all their warts, as you do with your siblings.

There are many occasions where I have witnessed someone react to behavior from someone else and I know that they would have reacted totally differently if the other party was someone else. It hasn’t been uncommon for me to say to someone “what would you have done if I had said that to you?” Once a bit is flipped, we often look for things to prove why we flipped that bit and we get frustrated, whereas with someone we like we are willing to deal with more and give them the benefit of the doubt.

All of these people, and family, dynamics can be seen in the corporate world. As you try to build a healthy company you need to watch over these dynamics and step in when appropriate. This doesn’t mean that every relationship should be happy happy joy joy. Not only is that not realistic, but it isn’t even ideal. It is good for us to push each other. It is good for us to have friction. The key isn’t to freak out at that, but rather find ways to process the friction. You don’t have to be best friends with every person or org out there, but you do need to work well together. That often comes down to trust.

The Poison

There are situations where I didn’t trust other orgs, and that was always a poisonous situation. This is where “politics” come out and you try to protect your team. In the short term this can keep the team moving and productive, but in the long run it is destined to break down as the natural structures don’t make any sense.

As someone responsible for some part of an organization, your job is to build trust over time throughout your organization. This includes working with your peers. Andy Grove calls this out explicitly when he defines the output of management as:

“A manager’s output is not her individual work, but instead the output of her organization plus that of the neighboring organizations under her influence”

This responsibility is important. We are all ultimately one family, and there is plenty to go around, so don’t be insular, but help with empathy.

With this in mind, I will try to treat everyone like a cousin, even at the org level 🙂

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