Avoiding Us vs Them in the Workplace

Group membership provides people with a sense of belonging, a basic and universal human need to know who we are and how we fit into the world. Once you ally yourself with a group, you begin to enjoy wonderful benefits , such as cooperation and cohesiveness, but you also begin to fall prey to some disturbing liabilities, such as prejudice and corruption.That’s when we have to remain alert for the “Us” vs “Them” dynamic.According to social identity theory (SIT), a term coined by Henri Tajfel and John Turner in the 1970s, people derive a sense of their self not only from their personal identity (unique personal characteristics) but also from their association and identification with one or more social groups (male, female, black, white, brunette, blonde, workgroup A, workgroup B, etc.).Study after study has shown that humans favor and strive to enhance the status of the groups to which they belong. This means conferring superiority on our group and inferiority on all others.“We” can accomplish anything; “we” are good.“They” are incompetent; “they” are bad.When this occurs, the gap between “us” and “them” widens.


One of the most famous psychological demonstrations of the “us vs them” phenomenon occurred in 1954, when social psychologist Muzafer Sherif and colleagues conducted the “Robbers Cave Experiment.”The researchers took a group of typical young boys to a summer camp at Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma and randomly assigned them to two separate groups whom they kept isolated from one another.The groups adopted names, The Rattlers and The Eagles. After an initial period of bonding, they told each group of boys about the other group. Now the games began.As the two groups engaged in head-on competition, they began behaving badly, resorting to name-calling, self-segregation, raids, and singing derogatory songs about the rival group.For the final phase of the study, the researchers created a situation that required the two groups to work together cooperatively on a problem, the solution of which would allow both groups to prosper.Sherif and his colleagues found that over time, the tensions between the groups declined as they gradually viewed the opposition more favorably.Related: How Good Leaders Build Rapport With Their People


  • Supportive, Friendly Competition. Focus on how everyone’s individual efforts help the entire team achieve success. Remain alert for signs that people have crossed the line: unwarranted complaints about others, angry outbursts, backstabbing, finger pointing, even sabotage.
  • Transparency . Maintain an open-door policy that encourages people to speak candidly about their feelings. Perhaps one group isn’t pulling their weight or perhaps another isn’t sharing important information, thereby holding up productivity. Better to know about the grievances floating around the office than to have them fester.
  • Rearrange competitive groups . Switch a few people from one group to another. This breaks up the initial group identity that became adversarial. It also serves to de-alienate the members of competing groups as those that were once “them” have now become part of “us.”
  • Make inter-group cooperation the norm. Create opportunities for shared responsibility and group incentives so everyone can learn from each other’s different work styles and gain confidence that they can count on each other.
  • Develop Team Spirit. Invest time developing a workplace culture where “playing nice” and competing positively is supported. Lead the team in socializing outside of work so they can get to know each other better and form closer connections.
  • Stress that you’re all in it together. While one department might think they’re responsible for keeping the entire organization afloat, the truth is every department of a company plays their part. No one person or group is solely responsible for keeping things running. Therefore, remind people that everyone’s on the same team.
  • Choose team leaders with care. The right team leader can keep the us vs them mentality at bay. Find those capable of nurturing collaborative, communicative team environments. To pinpoint the right candidates, have a leadership development company run a 360 degree assessment to learn who people trust and admire.
  • Hire a leadership development team or executive coach. A good leadership development team (I know just the one!) can uncover the root causes for why an us vs them mentality has developed within an organization. Once the cause is known, systems can be put in place to prevent further workplace disharmony.
  • It should be noted that the Us vs Them mentality can also stimulate healthy workplace competition. Competition can make the office an exciting and rewarding place to work.Some of the benefits of healthy competition are greater innovation, increased motivation, higher rates of productivity, and a boost in employee engagement.However, problems inevitably arise when the competition starts crossing the line from nurturing to toxic or the cohesiveness becomes so strong that you can’t unglue it.When healthy rivalry becomes bullying or people remain with the group because they fear reprisals, a leader should ease up on the us versus them mentality.