The Power of We


Interesting what can spark an idea and create insight.  Staring at the full moon the other night, I found myself marvelling, yet again, that we’ve been there.    That led me to consider the languaging: “We’ve been to the moon.”  We?  We’ve been there?  In fact, from Armstrong to Cernan, only 12 white American men have actually set foot on the moon, yet we often include ourselves in this achievement.  It is notable that this landmark is considered to be a milestone in human achievement and so we talk about it in collective terms.  It came about after JFK set a vision and “we” went along with him.  A vision.

There are other achievements that you’ll hear people include themselves in.  We defeated Nazism.  We eradicated smallpox.  We developed penicillin.  How did we manage this?

So what happens to us when we go to work and lose this ability to see the “we”?  Folks who, in their ordinary lives, are motivated, thoughtful, generous to their fellow human, energised and enthusiastic about life in general seem to leave all that at the door.  What is in the air conditioning that infects folks when they come to work and causes them to narrow their gaze and lower their expectations of what is possible?  Many workplaces still operate in silos, effectively causing the various departments to compete with one another.  It’s like your heart competing with your liver to see which is the best or most important organ in your body.  Utter nonsense.

We did some work with the leadership team of a finance company some years ago. Half of them managed the sales side of business and the other half the administrative side of the business.  I witnessed them openly expressing sentiments like: “If only your admin people would understand this: they wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for us salespeople,” and “If only your salespeople would understand this: they wouldn’t be able to do their jobs if our admin folks weren’t in the back room doing all this really important work.”  Our work was cut out for us.  I’ve heard similar things echoed in other businesses….and the silos stay grumpy and resentful of each other, losing sight of the bigger picture.  I wonder, however, if they have got hold of the bigger picture.

Hierarchical, command-and-control structures draw out the competitor in us.  We effectively have businesses running internal competitions, hoarding information, playing politics, who’s the best in the company.  Divided by lack of a clear common vision, we miss what is right in front of our noses: the other people here are potentially on the same side.

I’ve previously mentioned our work in a manufacturing firm, assisting team leaders to reduce silos and develop greater confidence in themselves.  They developed two key things during the course of our work:  improved relationships and the bigger picture of what they were all there to achieve together.  When they reduced the isolation they felt from each other, they stopped seeing others as “out to get them”.  When they developed the ability to think bigger, to see their “part” of the manufacturing line as integral to the whole, they began to perceive one team’s difficulties, one person’s difficulties, as their own.  These two together were the sparks that catalysed shared problem-solving, shared decision-making, shared achievement and they started to celebrate the success of each “part” as essential for the achievement of the whole.

Martin Luther King declared, “I have a dream,” not “I have a plan.”  Surely, for business, too, the starting point is the vision.  We wouldn’t have got to the moon without JFK’s bold vision.  He uttered some simple words that caused hearts to swell.  Businesses, likewise, can set out compelling visions that cause people to think, “I’m up for that.”  When there is a compelling vision, we have something around which we can gather together.  We can feel part of something bigger than ourselves; something meaningful.

Sociometric principles and practices point to a way of creating something shared in business.  One of the tenets of sociometry is that we have more in common with each other than divides us; however, much of those things that bind us lie hidden and unspoken.  Action sociometry aims to make the covert, overt, so that we discover how connected we actually are.  This reduces isolation and gives us confidence that we can together resolve our shared challenges and common difficulties.  Another thing that sociometry teaches us is that the quality of an outcome is directly related to the quality of relationships between the people who are attempting to generate that outcome.  It is the work, therefore, of leaders and those who consult to businesses to break down the isolation of modern work and to develop the sociometry to grow greater cooperation and collaboration.

“If you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.”  African proverb

Is “maximising shareholder return” the best that businesses can come up with?  If we now know that humans seek meaning from their work, what could possibly drive someone towards a vision as narrow as that?  I would hardly call “maximising shareholder return” what Sinan Si Alhir named as a history-making effort: intrinsic meaningfulness for universal benefit.  Where is the higher purpose in that?  Where is the universal benefit in that?

Working with the three senior leaders of a cemetery, I asked them, “What is your purpose?” and they paused.  As if I was asking them an exam question to which I knew the right answer, one of them hesitantly responded, “To provide good customer service?”  I half-jokingly said, “Why don’t you all go work in the local hardware shop then?”  They looked at me quizzically.  Eventually, after a little discussion between them, they decided that their purpose was to assist families going through a bereavement.  At this point, they all three got excited.  Grim work, I know, running a cemetery, however, they had finally hit the nail on the head.  It was as if they had suddenly realised why they come to work and they had hit upon their real purpose.  It wasn’t just scheduling burials or organising graves to be dug.  They were providing an essential service to others, one that nobody else could carry out.  From here, the conversation flowed.  They spoke with each other as if they were on the same team, rather than trying to manage what used to look like competing demands and interests.  Also, they began to see a clearer way to delineating the kinds of behaviours and attitudes they wanted to see in their workplace.  If everything was about achieving that higher purpose, they could see how to enlist everyone into achieving it.  They have found their “We”.

As Louise Altman has written, “WE focussed workplaces bring out the best in their employees–at every level.”  Maz Iqbal also described the success story that is John Lewis in the UK.  Masterful at employee engagement, customer experience and organisational effectiveness.  The collective spirit on which Lewis’s was founded is the driver of its continued success, even in the depths of recession.  Collectively, they exist to create happiness for its 81,000 partners (every employee is a part-owner of the business) and to serve customers with flair and fairness.  You feel it if you shop there.  While I’m not a fan of shopping, I find it a pleasure to shop at John Lewis.

It is this sense of “we” that John Lewis has achieved over 148 years that we need to develop in the world and in more of our workplaces.  It starts with the vision.  Something bigger than shareholder return, though, please.  Drill down and find out:  What is it that we are all here to achieve?  What is our purpose in coming together and how can we all contribute to that?  And it happens with good sociometry–deeper relatedness at work.  When people know who others are, how they belong and how much they have in common with others, as humans, it becomes easier to know we are “WE” and not just “you” and “I”.

Go on… me a hippy.

….or just see it as good business.  Want robust employee engagement, organisational effectiveness and customers that love you?  Find your purpose and strive for good relationships.

13 thoughts on “The Power of We

  1. Yeah John, right on!! This blog has helped me a great deal in ordering my thoughts about training a group of salesmen who are
    looking to ready themselves for difficult changes in their company. Thanks! Cam

  2. Hello John

    I say “I” is an abstraction, an illusion, a delusion. What is primordial is involvement – being in the world. And when we get present to “involvement’ in its fullest sense we get that we are talking about “We”. We is primordial!

    Lets look at the event that gives rise to the “individual”. What is so in that process? We. At a minimum, both mother and child are present – in union. And the process of birth involves both and the lives of both are participating and at stake in the birth process. And how will this “individual” survive without the mother? Can we truly say that after the birth the mother is the same mother as she was before? No.

    The other way I look at this is to ask the question “What kind of individual shows up he is the only individual?” If you are the only individual then there is no place for speaking nor language. There is no need for culture. There is no place for status seeking. Nor is there competition. And what place is there for trading? There is no person to trade with. If there is no person to trade with then there is no place for business. And certainly, no place for organisations nor law nor justice.

    Which brings me back to my central point. “Individual” is an abstraction, an illusion, a delusion. One which our way of living is addicted to. And there is a cost. Which is what you clearly spell out here in this post.

    Just mindfulness of the we as practiced and kept in existence through the language of “we” can make a profound impact.


    1. Maz, thank you for your rich contribution. I appreciate how you have extended “I” to be an abstraction. I get concerned by the “me-first”, individualistic mindsets that dominate our world. WE are not going to resolve environmental degradation, depletion of resources, poverty and injustice unless we can shifts those mindsets. WE can, indeed, make a profound impact, both in languaging and in action.

  3. Reblogged this on Optimizing Healing Healthcare and commented:
    John Wenger’s article “The Power of We” reminds me of the critical importance of eliminating a siloed and episodic approach to care and services in healthcare that not only negatively impact patients and their families but also the caregivers providing the care and services. Studies show that seamless and coordinated care and services have several and comprehensive benefits: improved patient satisfaction and safety, better communication and clinical outcomes, and improved staff and physician morale and satisfaction — just to name a few. To help optimize healing healthcare, hospitals and other healthcare organizations will do well by considering the reflection questions posed by Wenger in his blog that invite us to consider our purpose and mission (read: improving the health and wellness of the communities we serve). With this purpose and mission, we rediscover our common and shared purpose and “the power of we!” With “the power of we,” services, units, offices, departments, jobs, titles, and pay grades matter less than those whom we serve, and we’re reminded that each one of us is the patient experience.

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