Are You Inadvertently Cultivating An Us Against Them Environment?

If you’re ever interested in sparking a conversation among orchestra managers, musicians, or board members, ask them what they think about the us against them mentality. If you do, make sure to order a drink and sit back because it will probably be a long conversation.

In a nutshell, us against them usually rears its ugly head during labor disputes but unlike a severe weather event that comes and goes, it’s really more of an undertow that pulls stakeholders along whether they realize it or not.

In worst case scenarios, executive decision makers use it as a tool to manage their constituents and those instances are typically easy to call out. What I’m thinking about today is all the passive ways stakeholders inadvertently contribute to creating an unhealthy us against them environment.

Here in Chicago, I serve on the board of my homeowner’s association (shocking, right?). At 700 units with an annual budget in the $9mm range, it’s a large operation and like most associations, we hire a management company to run the executive administration side of things. That contracted staff has a dedicated office in the building and maintains four to five employees. But the dozens of other employees, such as doormen, maintenance and custodial staff, package room staff, etc., are direct employees, the vast majority of which are unionized.

Recently, one of the full-time office staff left for a position in a new field and the executive manager decided to throw a farewell lunch. They invoiced the Association for the lunch and after the fact, it was discovered that only the management office staff participated.

While no one assumes the decision to exclude all employees besides office staff was malicious, the fact of the matter is they all work in the same building and the staff member who left held a supervisory position over the union employees. It’s tough not to notice and word gets around and after chatting with some of the employees, that was exactly what happened. As a result, the us against them environment takes another step toward becoming standard operating procedure.

This scenario made me think of the times I’ve seen similar instances at orchestras where going-away gestures for office staff and musicians, especially those with a decade or more experience, are radically different affairs.

The point for today’s post is to not only inspire some internal reflection on how your organization handles this specific scenario but begin to consciously identify all the other ways we help contribute to an us against them environment without even realizing it.

I would love to hear some examples of where you’ve encountered this in the past and what was done to adjust the situation.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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