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How to avoid a culture war in business

Bicycle crash
(Image credit: Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., an advertising agency that specializes in working with stalled, stuck and stale brands. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 Southwest Small Agency of the Year and again in 2018. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

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Tom is a friend of mine. Tom is a triathlete. Tom missed his last event due to a broken collarbone. Because Tom went over the handlebars on his bike.

I’m already on record as having said swimmers are odd ducks. But bicyclists are nuts. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that almost every serious cyclist I know has had a brush (or two) with death. They have their own code words and rituals, spend a fortune on two-wheeled contraptions, sport funny shorts, wear shoes they can’t walk in and look at the rest of us as if we’re the strange ones.

Runners and cyclists (and swimmers, too) like to tease each other, and for the most part it’s all in good fun. We’re just different. And most of the time when we run into each other on a single-track trail it’s not a problem, with one or the other yielding the right of way.

I was reminded of this the other day when I had to step to the side of my running trail to let pass a couple of mountain bikers coming the other way. I didn’t mind; for the most part, runners and cyclists understand and abide by respectful rules of engagement, and there have been plenty of times when they’ve had to stop for me.  But after the second cyclist zipped past me with a breathless “thank you,” I realized that, standing there in the weeds with my hands on my hips, I may have looked perturbed. I didn’t mean to; I was only trying to catch my breath.

Sometimes, however, genuine conflicts do arise. Maybe both runner and cyclist are in a serious training mode and stopping or even slowing down will screw up their workout. Maybe one is fighting exhaustion and forgets or neglects protocol. Maybe one is wearing ear buds and can’t hear the other coming until it’s almost too late. Whatever the case, sometimes we run into each other. Sometimes literally.

At that moment, there are always two options. The first is to retreat into our clannish distinctions, mouth off and judge one another based on our differences. The other is to demonstrate understanding and offer grace (and, if warranted, an apology).

After all, we have much more in common than the form of exercise that divide us. We’re all athletes. We’re all glorying in God’s creation. We’re all working hard. We’re all trying to improve. We all have families waiting for us to come home safely. Most of all, we’re all human.

I suspect you see where I’m going with this. In business, as in athletics, there are times when we’re going to run into each other. Internal conflicts between divisions, departments, offices, floors, teams and individuals are unavoidable, and they can be as destructive as they are distracting.

In fact, research shows that they are not only the most common but the most debilitating internal dynamics with which companies have to deal. Sometimes culture wars themselves cause companies go adrift for the simple reason that, if you’re not working together, well, you’re not working together.

As with weekend warriors, when a clash happens in business it can go one of two ways. We can go tribal and think the worst of one another, or we can give each other the benefit of the doubt, presume each other has good intentions and focus on the fix.

A little humility and intentionality can go a long way in making things right. That is, in fact, where most of my company’s consulting engagements begin: by identifying and addressing what’s really going on, underneath the surface of struggling organizations.

Alas, restraint requires maturity. If human nature wasn’t what it is, “The Office” would never have taken off and “Dilbert” wouldn’t be turning 30. We like to laugh at interpersonal conflict, as long as it isn’t our own. When stuff happens in real life, we don’t find it funny, and it’s natural to retreat into resentment. The fact that it’s natural, however, doesn’t mean it’s helpful. Or productive. Or responsible.

What we see on TV and Twitter reflects and reinforces our worst tendencies, but behavior like that doesn’t work in the real world.

Mutual understanding can do wonders for a corporate culture, but it must begin with each of us, individually, making the difficult decision to engage rather than divide. To focus on our commonalities rather than our differences. To practice restraint and exercise empathy.

When you see someone coming the other way — on a bicycle, in business, or in life — recognize what they may be struggling with. Cut them some slack, and even step aside if need be. Most of the time we all want to get to the same place, even if our mode of transportation differs.