Us vs Them at Work

Arela Simerson
6 min readMar 19, 2019


EMPLOYEES feel that their managers are in the way of their work, development and success, vs the MANAGERS who feel that their employees are not engaged enough in their work and are “difficult”.

We all have heard about or have first hand experience with “bad managers” or toxic cultures. There is an entire genre of media dedicated to this. In our increasingly globalized world and different generational expectations, unresolved conflict and toxic cultures seem to be the norm.

I talked about upwards feedback in my last article, and the lack of room for it. As HR, people come to me often when they are not able to talk the other person directly. I see the same Us vs Them points, over and over again. Which leads me to question:

Why is it that we keep battling each other when we are on the same side?

When we review these feelings and feedback from bosses and employees, we get a clear sense that both sides want to do what they came for: work. So why is it we can’t get through to each other to make that happen? I have some theories.

Relationships are Hard, Behaviour is Complicated

The most striking thing, when I did the Google searches above, was the amount of times on both sides that I saw words about hate, mistrust, mental illness and disrespect. When other people behave in ways that directly or indirectly block, threaten or harm us, things become competitive and we are quick to label instead of understand. Understanding other people, their thoughts, feelings and motivation without bias or projecting onto them takes time, effort and experience.

This is the challenge of practicing empathy.

We are told that work is separate from private life, we believe we are different people at work, but there is no magic line at the office door that allows us to drop all of our personal history, sense of self and habits to then become the ideal manager or employee without any personal issues. We carry the good and bad with us everywhere.

As we grow up, we learn how to have relationships and how to behave with each other from our family, then more at school and continue to learn from our own experiences and interactions with the world. Each new social interaction, friendship or partner requires us to adjust again to another person to understand what they require from us for a positive and healthy interaction.

We learn that what might be appropriate for one setting, is entirely not in another. For instance, cheering our sports team on is expected and fun, but cheering our professor or boss during a presentation is not. We also learn what clothes are appropriate, how loud to raise our voices and how to behave on public transportation. Humans are dynamic and we adapt quickly to new environments and new people as we need to.

We learn how to read norms and boundaries to respect them, or Not.

Yet somehow, we forget about the delicate nature of this when we go to work. We forget that we have relationships with our colleagues and bosses as individual people and teams, and that relationships are hard. We forget how to leave our own biases aside and how to practice empathy. Or that even if they are our bosses, we still have the right to insist that they respect our boundaries. We get wrapped up in fear and competition. So then we hop onto google in our frustration and ask the information gods to please offer us a solution for managing our bad situation.

We Don’t Communicate, We Assume

Let’s go straight to the core. I see that mostly, employees and managers have the same fears and frustrations as each other. In a dysfunctional work environment, there is a lot of distrust, unhealthy competition and animosity. Each side is deeply worried about the stability and intentions of the other person and feels the need to protect themselves. To do this, we then project our ideas of why we think the other person is behaving badly and find reasons to negatively reinforce our thoughts.

Think about a situation you’ve been in like this; maybe that person was trying to harm you, however, did you try to communicate and hold your boundaries? Did you get support from another manager when your boss or employee was still behaving badly? Or, did you jump to conclusions before consulting with that other person and take actions to protect yourself? I’m going to guess most people can say ‘yes’ to the second one.

What about from the receiving end, which of you likes it when other people assume things about your motivations, wants or needs and then takes action without consulting you? Answer: not many. So why do we do it to others?

Communication is Difficult

Many people are intimidated by the idea of direct communication or conflict and many feel, or do in fact face retaliation for direct communication. It’s hard to speak up to someone in a powerful position when they have the possibility to retaliate. It is also totally inappropriate in some cultures or hierarchical settings to offer upwards feedback. Maybe your boss lacks the skills to express what they need, or doesn’t realize they are working under hidden assumptions. It is also entirely possible that the person in power, has not the best interest of the employee at heart.

Whatever the reasons we fail to communicate effectively, one thing is clear, the lack of doing so damages company success, culture and ourselves.

Direct and constructive communication is mandatory to create the sense of trust a healthy and high functioning team is based on.

Healthy employees and managers want to be respected, liked, heard and given a chance to do good work. We want to speak for ourselves and not have others assume our needs. We want to work in a great team environment and feel good at work. The best way to ensure this is to focus on communication, healthy boundaries and excellent management.

Building and Respecting Boundaries

As an employee, some people are better at setting boundaries than others. Some people know their worth, requirements and which boundaries they need in order to function at their best. Yet, many people out there don’t know what their boundaries are or how to manage the even more complicated task of enforcing them. Think about it, if a boss asks you to stay late and finish their presentation, which is entirely out of your scope or work, do you?

Even if it means missing a family event or some much needed personal time, many employees lack the skills to be able to say no and set healthy boundaries for themselves at work.

We also face the real truth of many people in our work environment, specifically startups and tech, that do not respect boundaries. I have another whole set of things to say about this one for the next article!

Excellent Managers and Employees

The process of developing a non-toxic work environment comes down to the mangers.

The first step is to acknowledge that many need help in communication and leadership training. Managers need to learn how to check their biases, respect their employees boundaries and practice intellectual humility to allow the room for upwards feedback and development. Additionally, many people are in manger roles that maybe shouldn’t be. Only a very small percentage of people are naturally well suited to management.

It is the responsibility of the top leadership to ensure managers are well suited and skilled to manage their staff.

Working towards a well functioning and productive team, requires a priority for: healthy direct communication, respecting boundaries and excellent management. So let’s give Google a break and instead of asking it for answers, reflect on your own behaviour and ask yourself in what ways you can improve your communication or work on a healthier boundary dynamic.

For more information about building boundaries, developing communication and managing the change process out of a toxic culture, visit me at