How Managers Confront Us/Them Thinking and Win

Feb 7, 2022

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.’”

'We' cultures win. Us/them cultures rot from within.

Us/them thinking in life:

I worked in a group that was housed separately 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, hardworking 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?

By Dan Rockwell