How Managers Confront Us/them-thinking and Win

How Managers Confront Us/them-thinking and Win

Us/them-thinking comes naturally to everyone, even children. 

Imagine giving blue shirts to one group of children and yellow to another. Us/them-thinking will animate perception quickly. Children think my group is better than your group. One researcher proved this.

“Kids started to think the blue was different from the yellow,” Rebecca Bigler Ph.D., says. “What comes very quickly after that is, ‘the blues are better than the yellows.’”

Image of a fallen tree that rotted from within. 'We' cultures win. Us/them cultures rot from within.Image of a fallen tree that rotted from within. 'We' cultures win. Us/them cultures rot from within.

Us/them-thinking in life:

I worked in a group that was housed separate from the main division. I felt our group worked hard and delivered better results than the rest of the division. I lost the luxury of superiority when we were brought under the same roof. Those ‘bad’ people were actually talented hard-working colleagues.

We’re prone to illogical bias.

I asked a VP of Apple what people saw in him. Among other things, he said, “It doesn’t hurt that I’m 6’5”.” Research shows that, “… people hold implicit biases against short people.” Tall people are more likely than short people to be hired and promoted.

Us/them-thinking in organizations:

Us/them-thinking permeates organizational life. ‘Them’ tends to be bad. ‘Us’ tends to be good.

  1. Boss/employee.
  2. Corporate/local.
  3. Inexperience/experience.
  4. Old/young.
  5. Men/women.
  6. Government/citizens.
  7. Republican/Democrat.
  8. Parents/teachers.
  9. White/black.
  10. Tall/short.
  11. Union/management.
  12. My team/your team.

Denying the reality of us/them-thinking propagates irrational decisions.

Leaders are suffocated by us/them-thinking every day. Suppose you’re charged to integrate two teams, for example. ‘Them’ is the enemy. ‘Us’ is the good people.

How managers confront us/them-thinking and win:

  1. Acknowledge us/them thinking is unfair, irrational, and adversarial.
  2. Agree on shared meaningful goals. Work for mutual benefit.
  3. Establish cross-functional leadership. When one loses, we all lose.
  4. Embrace ‘we’-talk. Words are rudders.
  5. Institute cross-dependencies that require ‘we’ behaviors to win.
  6. Promote people who practice ‘we’ behaviors.
  7. Have leaders from one team honor members of the other team.

‘We’ cultures win. Us/them cultures rot from within.

Where do you see us/them-thinking in your organization?

How might leaders confront us/them-thinking and win?

Added resources:
5 Essentials of Culture Building

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