How Do You Lead a Divided Team Toward Unity?

Once upon a time, Minnesota was known for bad weather and more than our fair share of lakes. For the past 11 months, we’ve become world-renown as one of the most divisive places on the planet. 11 months ago, following the tragic death of George Floyd, I wrote a series of articles about my observations and how these events influenced my leadership philosophy. You can read them here, here, and here.

Now, this week, a new tragedy occurred. This one, quite literally, is very close to home. If you live outside the Twin Cities metro, you’ve probably never heard of Brooklyn Center before this week. I know Brooklyn Center quite well. I live just a few miles away in the neighboring city of Brooklyn Park. I have family in Brooklyn Center and spent this past Sunday afternoon celebrating my niece and nephew’s birthdays only blocks away from the event that sparked a new wave of international outrage.

Now, my corner of the Twin Cities metro is known for violence, curfews, protests, boarded-up stores, and a strong military presence.

Two worlds

Living here is like having a foot in two worlds. It’s close to the city and close to the outer suburbs. It’s in the middle. We have diversity, which is good, and polarity, which is really difficult. As I have conversations with friends and scroll through my social media feeds, I am constantly bombarded with messages that reinforce the polarization.

The way I see it, leaders in a divided world have three options:

  1. Pick a side, advocate hard, and try to win people over to your side. I see a lot of this. The individual approaches vary widely from subtle to overt and from logical to emotional.
  2. Stay quiet. Stay out of it. Wait for it all to blow over.
  3. Make peace. Lead from shared values. Facilitate reconciliation. This approach is rare and hard.

Not political

At this point, I’m going to pivot away from the specific issue going on in my community. I’m not going to attempt to use this platform to solve a complex political problem.

I will use this situation as a metaphor and lesson for leadership outside of the political arena. Many of my readers live outside of the Twin Cities, and many practice leadership in a business context.

Division and scale

Many of us start out leading small teams before we are given the opportunity to lead larger teams. That’s a normal progression. Small teams are much more likely to be like-minded. Sure, you will have differences of opinion, but you should be able to work those matters out with a little collaboration and teamwork.

When you get to the point when you are leading hundreds of people, significant divisions are much more likely. With a large enough group, you’ll have enough diversity of thought and backgrounds to produce factions within your team. In my world of Information Technology, this may show up as agile vs. waterfall, projects vs. products, insource vs. outsource, cloud vs. on-premises, or Linux vs. Windows. The possible divisions are endless.

Leading a divided team

Now, let’s revisit the leadership options I introduced earlier.

  1. Pick a side. This is a viable option. I’ve picked sides before and have used this blog as a platform to advocate. Cloud computing is a prime example. However, as a leader, I must acknowledge that my team exhibits some division on this issue as we still operate in hybrid cloud environment. It’s not only my job to make a statement and set a direction. I also must lay the pathway for everyone to get there. I’m not leaving anyone behind. This takes change leadership and is a long process.
  2. Stay quiet. Leaders can’t afford to stay quiet on issues that divide their teams. The division will destroy.
  3. Make peace. Some issues that divide our teams really shouldn’t. Sometimes leaders need to legitimize both sides and reframe the options as complementary instead of opposing. Leaders can change “Side A vs. Side B” to “Side A and Side B.” To facilitate that, leaders need to emphasize common goals, common values, and mutual respect. Infighting will destroy a team.

Unity

Take it from me. As someone who lives in a famously divided community, don’t take unity for granted. Fight for it. Struggle through it. Protect it. Identify the divisions within your team and do the work to address them.

I selected the image above on purpose. This can feel like navigating a stormy ocean without a boat. You will feel the impact of powerful forces that you can’t completely control. It will get messy.

I want you to take some action now. Think about your team. What are the issues that divide your group? Pick the most severe issue and think about it. Perhaps you’ve been silent on this issue to date. That’s okay, but you can do better now. It takes a lot of wisdom and consideration to determine the next step. Is this the time to be a change agent or peacemaker? If you don’t know, spend some time listening to people with opposing viewpoints. Take the time to understand the issue. Talk it over with someone you trust that isn’t involved.

Then, make your choice. If it’s option one, then commit to the discipline and patience required for change leadership, and don’t stop until you get there. If it’s option three, then make peace, facilitate reconciliation. Insist upon mutual respect and set the tone by demonstrating this yourself.

The world needs more authentic change leaders and peacemakers for sure.

One last note on the tragedy in Brooklyn Center: You might not feel like you can solve the political divide, but you can care. Do you know someone who lives in the community? Do you know someone who’s been deeply impacted by the situation? Reach out and show that person that you care. It makes a difference.

Read this article on my blog site or listen to it on my podcast🎙️

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Zach Hughes

Zach Hughes

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Technology Leader at CHS. Passionate about leadership and innovation. Posts are my own.