“The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not a bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly.”
– Jim Rohn
We are social beings that have a deep need to belong. This stems from our age-long need to work together in groups to survive, reproduce, and flourish.
As a result, the human mind has a tendency to categorize people into social groups. And often these social groups can create an “Us vs. Them” mentality toward people who may be different than us in some way, whether it’s because of race, tribe, gender, age, nationality, culture, religion, or socioeconomic status.
In the early 1970s, British social psychologist Henri Tajfel explored a phenomenon he called the minimal group paradigm. The basic idea behind this concept was to investigate the minimal conditions required for discrimination to occur within groups.
Amazingly, studies on this approach have shown that people tend to favor a group bias even when they are categorized on relatively meaningless distinctions, for example: eye color, what kind of paintings they like, or even the flip of a coin.
This tells us that we can potentially separate ourselves from a certain group of people on any random and arbitrary characteristic. Therefore, everyone is susceptible to be a perpetrator and/or victim of social prejudice and ostracism.
It appears that thinking of ourselves in terms of groups automatically leads to a kind of irrational group favoritism.
It’s not hard to see how this “Us vs. Them” mentality can be destructive to both ourselves and society as a whole. And it is scary to think just how susceptible we are to these biases, even under completely random circumstances.
Despite all of this, it makes sense that we’ve evolved to perceive these social categories. During tribal times, it would be beneficial to perceive unfamiliar people as a potential threat and treat them as such for protection and security.
But today many of these social categories and stereotypes are propagated by society, tradition, and culture. They aren’t relevant anymore, but we continue to believe them and in many ways they become self-fulfilling beliefs.
So why shouldn’t we have any “versus”? Because the juxtaposition decimates empathy and goodwill and therefore honesty, so no psychological safety is being created and in the absence of psychological safety, no organisation can expect productive, innovative results.
“Us versus Them” silos are fearful, closed, hurting and hurtful, paralyzing, negative, and ultimately extremely dangerous to the health – and ultimate survival – of any organization. Winning teams are, by contrast, psychologically safe, truly open, purpose-driven, customer and learning obsessed, agile or at least flexible, empathic with a positive agenda, have and share knowledge, are brave and heavily emotionally invested.
These versus mindsets and resulting silos are a symptom of larger organizational issues. An analysis of successful organizations have shown a lesser degree of “Us vs. Them” by whatever measuring method they would apply than what is found in other associations.
What is the way forward?
We first need to become more aware of our tendency to put people into groups and create an “Us vs. Them” mentality, especially if we want more peace, tolerance, and unity.
We see it all the time in politics (APC vs. PDP), war (Palestine vs. Israel), sports (Barcelona vs. Real Madrid), and other aspects of our culture, but at the end of the day a lot of this thinking creates unnecessary tension and antagonism between everyone.
Group thinking causes us to act irrationally and uncooperative, because we are more concerned about conforming with our group instead of thinking intelligently for ourselves, or recognizing other people’s interests and values outside of our own social circle.
Instead of seeing people in groups, a better perspective is to see everyone as an individual worthy of respect, equality, and kindness, regardless of what groups they may be categorized in.
We shouldn’t necessarily ignore these common differences between us, but we certainly shouldn’t use them to judge people as “superior” or “inferior” – or see them as a battle between “Us vs. Them.”
If you choose to associate with a group identity, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Just be super mindful of it and be cautious if that identity starts to have a negative influence on how you view other people who you don’t identify with.
One of the main suggestions to foster an open climate is creating “braintrusts”, which are groups with clear rules and guidelines that enable and foster honest feedback while carefully steering it away from negativity so as to ensure it is received constructively. Members of these groups who offer their opinions, do so with the best of intentions, lead with praise, communicate with empathy and are mindful of always speaking up in the interest of progress. This is similar to what obtains in the academic Peer Review groups but another parallel can be drawn to Amazon’s memo culture that encourages a thoughtful, verbose approach to assimilating, processing and debating information.
From a societal point-of-view, we need to turn the “Us vs. Them Mentality” into a “We” mindset. We are all in this together and we need to find a solution that integrates everyone’s values and interests.
If you fundamentally don’t see people as part of your group, then it’s going to be very difficult (if not impossible) to work together with them toward common solutions.
To circumvent this destructive mentality, we should seek to belong to a new world, one of open sharing, collaborating and partnering to design better outcomes together.
We should try to identify with everyone in some way. At the core of human beings, we are all just trying to find happiness – and in that sense we are all connected to some degree, so seeing anyone as completely separate from you is an illusion.
This “us vs. them” attitude hasn’t ever and will never work. The problems in our organisation, our nation and indeed the world at large will not be solved with an “us vs. them” mentality. It is going to take all of us to fix the mess that we are in. It’s going to take all of us working together to make things better for generations to come. Otherwise, nothing will change.
When we begin to look to others to fix the problems (because we see them as the problem) we end up believing that the problem isn’t ours. Worse, when we begin to blame others for the problems we end up excusing ourselves as if we are not the part of the problem.
To some degree, we are all part of the problem. Because we don’t stop to actually put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. We all carry judgments and presupposed ideas, even if it’s the slightest of judgements.
We must start talking to each other and listening to each other. Love always wins, but love cannot even begin to win if we don’t start giving love a chance. It’s the only way. Stop blaming the other side and realize that it’s not us versus them, it’s just simply us.
Dr. Kennedy O. Obohwemu
Faculty of Health & Wellbeing
University of Sunderland
Credit: michaelwilson.org, keepyourchildsafe.org, theemotionmachine.com