How a Big Why Creates a Bigger We

Every organization I talk to, regardless of size or industry, complains of the harmful effects of silos, or what one client calls — with winking gallows humor — “cylinders of excellence.”

Rigid silos — departments and teams that don’t cooperate, that don’t trust one another, that steal cupcakes from each other’s break rooms — create gobs of organizational dysfunctions. Heavily siloed organizations can’t solve challenging and meaningful problems. They’re unable to respond efficiently and effectively to external threats or opportunities. They don’t deliver their full potential value to suppliers, customers, shareholders, or employees. They aren’t nimble or flexible or adaptable, and they sure as heck aren’t agile.

At the root of all this is what I’ve come to call a “narrow sense of We.”

A narrow sense of We in the workplace

At work, our sense of We often starts and ends with our immediate team or department. As employees, this narrow sense of We can cause us to over-identify with our team and under-identify with our company, our industry, or with our ecosystem of suppliers, customers, shareholders, coworkers, and communities. As leaders, a narrow We might mean over-identifying with our peers and viewing the rest of our company as They.

When our sense of We is narrow, our sense of They is correspondingly broad. When was the last time you spoke with frustration about a They within your own company? Maybe it’s that team you just know isn’t working as hard as your team. Perhaps it’s management, who never seems to want to work with the union. Maybe it’s the senior leadership in your company, who are thoroughly out of touch with your day-to-day reality. Or, if you’re one of those senior leaders, maybe it’s those continually griping employees who don’t get the big picture.

This “We-versus-They” talk might seem harmless enough. It might even make your We stronger. After all, a common enemy (i.e., a shared definition of They) has a way of strengthening our internal alliances.

But a narrow sense of We has real business costs and consequences. A narrow sense of We means we don’t share a vision for the future with They. We don’t share a sense of purpose or even shared standards for how we treat one another. It might mean We focus on the status and health of our team at the expense of another team, or even of the whole company. In this environment, the larger We achieves less, and the smaller We operates with a counterproductive siege mentality, defending our turf, protecting our status, and suffering from all the stress and negative emotions that go along with that.

If we want to achieve great things at work, to solve challenging and meaningful problems, and to live and work in constructive cultures — we must cultivate a broader sense of We.

A narrow sense of We in the world

The subculture of our workplace is in continual dialogue with the culture of the society in which we live. The beliefs, assumptions, and expectations we cultivate at work cross over into our social worlds and spill over onto our closest friends and family members. Just as we rarely completely leave our personal lives at the office door, we carry work with us into our personal lives as well. Don’t buy it? Just think about the last time you had another maddeningly frustrating conversation with your boss, then honked at too many people on your drive home.

Undoubtedly, the We-versus-They problem extends far beyond the workplace. You don’t have to spend more than a few minutes on Twitter to find narrow We’s jousting at broader They’s, often with colorful language and animated GIFs that reject anything that might unite them as a single We. When we continuously live in a state of aggressively (or passively) defending our We from an imagined They, we use up vital emotional, psychological, and physical energy that we might otherwise channel into more-constructive efforts — like registering to vote, volunteering for a worthy cause, or reading a book.

If we can begin to broaden the sense of We at work, maybe we can also expand our sense of We in the world, thereby healing at least some of the divisions that threaten to tear us apart.

If we want to achieve great things at work, to solve challenging and meaningful problems, and to live and work in constructive cultures — we must cultivate a broader sense of We.

But where the heck do we start?

How to create a bigger We

First, we have to recognize that, at work, silos exist for a reason. Just as cells and organs in our body specialize in certain functions, so do teams and departments within organizations. We also have to accept that a healthy tension between the growth engines and the controls within a company — between the accelerators and the brakes — will always exist. Legal, for example, will never be motivated by the same factors as Sales. This isn’t inherently bad or unhealthy, but simply specialization.

Second, we need to understand how silos are hurting or helping. Here, a structured diagnostic tool can help us examine two relevant outcomes:

  • Intra-team cooperation: how collaborative and supportive people are as they get work done in their own teams, i.e., how strong those silos are
  • Inter-team coordination: how much people coordinate across teams to get work done in a smooth and streamlined way, i.e., how permeable and connected those silos are

In my experience, silos in most organizations are strong and impermeable, i.e., intra-unit teamwork is pretty good, and inter-unit coordination is pretty crummy. Maybe this is a side effect of all of those years focused on “team-building,” or perhaps it comes from a deeply ingrained need to identify We and They. To which group do I belong? And which groups do I think will try to steal my cupcakes?

A shared sense of Purpose for a broader sense of We

Regardless of what’s driving this strong and impermeable sense of We, if we want a more constructive workplace culture, we next need to align these separate departments as a We. One helpful ingredient for cooking up a strong We is a shared sense of purpose. In our bodies, the cells and organs must align with a common purpose, which is, ideally, keeping us healthy and alive. In a company, employees need to understand the big goals we’re trying to achieve, the big vision we’re trying to attain, or the big mission we’re trying to fulfill — and then we all need to understand how our individual daily actions contribute to this big Why. In this way, the big Why creates a bigger We.

As we work to broaden the sense of We in our organizations, the goal isn’t to eliminate those reviled cylinders of excellence. The goal is to align them, connect them, and make them as permeable as possible so that they can work together to achieve the big Why. This results in a broader sense of We, one that encompasses, at least, the whole organization. For even more significant impact, that sense of We can be expanded to include suppliers, customers, shareholders, and communities by finding the big Why that matters to all and to which all contribute.

With a broader sense of We, we create a more constructive culture in which we can all contribute more, make a greater impact — and maybe even make the world a better place.


Editor’s note: NEW STUDY. One of the largest organizational culture studies in the world declares that a critical ingredient in a Constructive culture is purpose – an element covered in this blog post. Purpose is about your organization’s reason for being and the contributions or difference employees make in the world, the report finds. If you lead, collaborate, or consult on transforming workplace culture, download the report to guide your efforts.

About the Author

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Eryc Eyl

Eryc Eyl is committed to improving the human experience of work and business. With decades of experience in diverse roles and industries, as well as certifications in customer experience, organizational culture, and change management, he brings a research-based, empowering message that can transform the role that work plays for individuals and society. Eryc has helped nonprofit and for-profit organizations in a variety of industries improve experiences for their customers and employees while improving their effectiveness. He speaks, advises, and consults widely on human experience, driven by a deeply held belief that work can be more than just another four-letter word.