Divisive behaviors—posturing, gossiping, and backchannel conversations—cause a host of organizational headaches such as apathy, low morale, and low productivity. But there are ways to address these behaviors and breathe new life into your organization.

In this post, we recap highlights from our Divisive Behaviors in the Workplace webinar, the first in our Organizational Adulting series.

We chose to focus on divisive workplace behaviors based on feedback from a recent survey of the XPLANE community, where over 70% of respondents felt these behaviors were their biggest organizational challenge.

When we dug further into the causes of divisive behaviors, the following traits emerged:

  • Posturing and political maneuvering (e.g. gossip, back-channel conversations, and backstabbing). This specific behavior is often the culprit behind low morale, trust, and feelings of high anxiety.
  • Team territorialism and turf warring. This includes stonewalling, buffering, and excluding stakeholders; generally inducing a stranglehold on information that’s critical to productivity.
  • Operating in silos. The default setting for most large organizations is to be organized into functions but when the people in those functions don’t engage outside of their own group, collaboration, information sharing, and holistic decision-making are severely handicapped by this lack of cross-functional engagement. “Silo mentality” produces mediocre performance at best, increases attrition, stifles innovation and creativity, and results in poor client and customer experiences and perceptions.

While divisive behaviors can occur in organizations of all sizes—from startups to big corporations—there is hope for eradicating or at least significantly diminishing these behaviors.

The Power of Adulting at Work

Organizational Adulting—being an adult at work and treating everyone else as an adult too—is key to reducing divisiveness.

When we Adult, we exhibit behaviors traditionally associated with highly productive, collaborative teams. We’re more engaged, motivated, and proud of our team and our work.

So how do we tackle divisive inclinations to generate connecting behaviors to build up teams and organizations?

Overcoming Divisive Behaviors

Mary Wharmby, an independent consultant who uses Design Thinking to transform organizations, points out that divisive behaviors often originate with the creation of a company. Attitudes can persist for years, even decades, proliferating throughout the organization and affecting individual behavior downstream.

If issues originate at the top, shouldn’t management remedy the problem?

Not necessarily. The vantage point from the top doesn’t always give leaders exposure to these systematic behaviors.

Rather than waiting for management to effect change, making small changes from the bottom up is often the best way to attack divisiveness.

“You’d be surprised at the power of small changes,” asserts Mary. “They actually become infectious. Good behavior rubs off on people and essentially plants a positive virus within the organization.”

Several best practices can get at the roots of problems and create positive change:


Understand what is really happening. A small investigation can yield big insights. Reflect on the problems you see and talk to colleagues. Where are you seeing divisive behavior? Even better, where are you seeing positive behavior, and can you build on that?


Exercise empathy and humility. “If you want to create positive change,” says Mary, “you must lead with your heart.” Understanding the pressures and constraints of others lends insight into their pain. What seems to be a divisive behavior might actually be a reaction to circumstances over which people have no control. Showing compassion—and remembering that most people have good intentions and want to do well—can get you on the path to transformation.


Fix yourself and your team first. Contrary to popular belief, company culture is not a single monolithic thing but rather a montage of multiple overlapping cultures. Making positive change “close to home” can slowly catalyze change throughout the organization.

04-Establish Rules

Establish clear rules of play. Consider creating a list of “rules” for working and communicating with others at work. At her prior firm, Mary helped create a card deck of Golden Rules to ensure safe, collaborative, and innovative work environments. Rules can be customized to any team or situation.


Build bridges with other teams and areas. Creating a web of informal, lateral connections across the organization helps effect change. Through a network of informal connections, it’s possible to transcend silo structure to create a more cooperative, dynamic workplace.

06-Common Language

Adopt a common language. How do you talk about innovation, organization, customers, and the creative process in your team or organization? Establishing a common language can align teams and invigorate processes for higher efficiency and effectiveness.


Co-create processes with which you engage. Tap into the wisdom of workers by allowing those most familiar with a particular process or approach to help find solutions to problems. Doing so gives them a stake in the success (or failure) of a solution and makes them much more likely to support a new process or approach.


Find ways to reward good behavior. Rewarding good behavior does not have to rest exclusively with HR. Informal rewards such as creating a positive work environment, sharing knowledge, and allowing people to participate in problem-solving can be powerful rewards in themselves.

Building on Positive Change

Once change begins to take hold in an organization, building on that success by promoting initiative, creativity, and passion can bring about a startling transformation in a previously dispirited organization.

Consultant Ben Carmel, a learning designer, shares the following tips for enabling organizations to foster an atmosphere of innovation:

09-Gather Insights

Support sense-making. Gather insights, information, and needs from many sources or people. Then, together, look for the threads, the common problems and opportunities. This creates shared solutions and mutual value.


Promote “what-if-ing.” Give people time or space to gather and form big “what if” questions. Allow questions to float. Don’t look for immediate solutions. Leave questions on a whiteboard or share them digitally (e.g. Slack or Google Docs) for people to see. This practice can have a dramatic effect on engagement.


Create connections. Formalize building individual and organizational networks. Seek diversity across teams, departments, and outside the organization—and share these connections transparently. Connections are essential to innovation, which rarely comes from the center. Seek those people at the edges (wherever they are) to help form new ideas.


Ask “How did you make a difference?” All the things people do that are not their job (for instance, mentoring a new employee) make the workplace more collaborative and cooperative. Encourage and recognize people for these good acts.


Encourage show and tell. Support peer learning via brown bags. Invite people to share outside interests and bring their “authentic selves” to work. It just might be a concept in chess playing, for instance, that sparks a solution to a work challenge.

Tools for Overcoming Divisive Behaviors

XPLANE has developed two tools to help teams and organizations overcome divisive behaviors: the Defeating Divisive Behaviors Worksheet and the Organizational Adulting Mindset Worksheet.

Both tools are designed to identify and target divisive behaviors and connect these behaviors with practices such as communicating transparently and practicing humility designed to eradicate the divisive behavior.

For more information on overcoming divisive behavior in the workplace, contact XPLANE. We’re here to help.

If you found this information valuable, please share this post with your peers. And after you download the Defeating Divisive Behaviors Worksheet, we recommend getting your team together and working on it collaboratively. People buy in and more quickly adopt what they help create, after all!

Finally, if you missed our other Organizational Adulting posts, be sure to check them out in the links below.

Two people stand in front of a large worksheet, both writing on it

Are your employees resistant to change?

Use these resources to start tackling your organization’s culture challenges. We’d love to hear how they’re working for you — or to partner with you in designing a custom approach that will help accelerate change. Get in touch today to talk about how XPLANE could help you enrich your organization’s culture.