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Actionable Insights

Us v. Them - Collaboration Is Serious Business

Oct 30, 2018 10:18:00 AM / by Adam Nathan

It doesn’t matter which two teams. 

It starts immediately and unconsciously. To some degree the integration of teams around a common goal inevitably produces an Us vs. Them dynamic. This split creates division over perceived effort, talent, recognition, praise, conflict resolution, inclusion, and commitment. 

Exceptional leadership can bridge these gaps and unify teams for a larger purpose. But exceptional leadership by its very definition is a scarce resource.

How does everyone else resolve this challenge? And what can I do with my own team?

How To Solve the "Us vs. Them" Challenge

This article describes the Us v. Them challenge in organizations and outlines the success criteria for resolving.

It is broken into 5 parts:

  1. Challenge
  2. Impact
  3. The Top 5 Approaches
  4. The Science
  5. Criteria for Resolution
  6. (Appendix) The Top Online Collaboration Links


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 The Challenge of Collaboration

Maybe the teams were brought together as the result of a merger or acquisition. Maybe they were charged with unifying across geographic or cultural boundaries. Or it's QA vs. Development, Marketing vs. Sales, employees vs. executives. If you take a minute to think of your own organization, it is likely that you can come up with your own internal divisions.

It’s almost too easy to find the us and thems.

  • “They aren’t asking us."
  • “They aren’t telling us."
  • “They are always taking the credit."
  • “We’re staying late."
  • “Never mind. We’ll just do it ourselves."
  • “They don’t care."
  • “They’re just not very good at their jobs."

In the worst cases a team culture of gossip, secrecy, blame and anger develop.

We’ll consider the science behind these splits momentarily, but for now it is useful to understand that these are the default behaviors of humans in groups.

The Impact of "Us v. Them"

Unfortunately, the impact of these behaviors can be difficult to see or quantify. Challenges in collaboration affect culture, value and time - but they do so below the surface. They are almost hidden. In fact, many of the impacts noted below are never tied back to challenges in integrating teams or developing a collaborative culture at all.

Consider these:

  • Absenteeism or Turnover
  • Redundant tools, software and data are purchased for efforts in different silos
  • Duplicate, contradictory data captured in different systems
  • Quality of orders and services are impacted
  • Sales are lost
  • Marketing dollars are wasted
  • Projects are delayed or abandoned
  • Promises to customers are broken
  • Features aren’t delivered
  • Customers wait longer, ask for help more often, and are left frustrated

For every impact noted above, the impact of Us vs. Them is rarely addressed directly. 

Why doesn't a departmental or enterprise failure to cooperate get tackled head on?

Here are two major challenges to consider.

The first challenge is that the symptoms of a lack of collaboration become the focus:

  • "We just weren’t able to deliver the features on time"
  • "It was too complex to integrate the data"
  • “Marketing wasted a fortune"
  • "Our sales were poor"
  • “QA was terrible"
  • “The employees in the merger were a poor fit for our culture."
  • “Customer support was consistently slow and unhelpful."
  • “Executives were too slow to fix the business model."

The second challenge is even simpler.

An inordinate amount of time was spent coping with hurt feelings, frustration, apathy and resentment - but these were only symptoms of the larger problem. They weren’t root cause. When it came to addressing the root cause of teams locked in Us. v. Them, it isn’t always clear what to do.

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The Wisdom on Collaboration - The Internet’s Top 100 Suggestions

So what is the conventional wisdom for organizations? What should they do to address a struggle to cooperate, perfunctory collaboration, or teams drifting into their own isolated silos?

Not surprisingly, the Internet has a lot to say - and a little research was in order.

We gathered the first 100 suggestions for workforce collaboration and reducing Us vs. Them. Then I sorted them by theme. Here are the Top 10 recurring ideas on creating a collaborative environment (the complete list of source articles is below):

  • Set Goals & Standards
  • Collaboration Software
  • Encourage Socializing
  • Identify Team Strengths
  • Encourage Innovation
  • Reward Behavior & Communicate Achievements
  • Demonstrate Collaboration
  • Foster Communication
  • Ditch the Drama
  • Be Transparent

Every recommendation makes perfect sense. But invariably organizations think they are already or mostly already doing these things. Or they have tried these things.

What stood out the most?

The most significant meta theme is the assumption that creating collaboration and minimizing Us vs. Them is a managerial exercise. 

In each case the proposed solution is something an external party can do to help the teams. The understanding of collaboration is that it flows out of a prepared environment, established guidelines, team-building gatherings.

There were virtually no suggestions on how a team can improve collaboration independently of their managers. Is the current understanding on collaboration missing something self-evident?

Football teams sometimes gather in locker rooms without their coaches to build team. Where is this in the workplace?

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Learn How We Approach Us vs. Them

The Science of In-Groups and Out-Groups

So what does science tell us about groups dividing into Us vs. Them? In short, it is this:

  1. It is human nature to create our “positive identities" through in-groups - and in opposition to out-groups
  2. Unless the point of a group is to oppose the other group, they can generally be united through an overarching shared group identity
  3. Intergroup contact itself breaks down divisions
Is it enough in your organization to say that “we’re part of the same company?" 

What’s an individual's default relationship to a group?

Groups create a powerful sense of identity. This happens with obvious groups like religion, nationality, gender, region, political affinity. But we also separate ourselves into groups for the most trivial reasons - and then proceed to favor those within our own group. 

Distinctions as trivial as preference for a certain painting, scoring similarly on a test or even the simple flip of a coin create group identities that lead to favoritism of the associated group.  The "mere perception of the existence of another group can itself produce discrimination.

None of this is a great recipe for getting two groups to cooperate with each other across responsibilities, former companies, competing financial goals and more.

This powerful tendency to align with groups to create one’s own identity leads to a number of interesting outcomes:

  1. In-group favoritism
  2. Out-group discrimination 
  3. Group homogeneity - “They are alike. We are diverse"
  4. Group polarization - beliefs are made more extreme though group association

We don’t have to look far to see this in play in race, gender, religion, politics, even mobile phone operating systems...

To mitigate the divisions we see between our own organizational teams, we should recognize that at least some of the tensions in play are the result of naturally occurring human dynamics. They are our default tendency - just as a shared external threat produces the opposite, unifying response.

Research suggests that one approach to solving for this dynamic is to create a “common in-group identity” to reduce intergroup bias (the preference for one’s own group over others.) 

What is a common group identity?

The common in-group identity is the process of recategorizing the boundaries of a group. The different groups recast their understanding of themselves as part of another group, which is called the "superordinate group.” As a result, the individuals who used to be part of an out-group now find a shared alignment around a new boundary. 

Individuals become more sympathetic towards the formerly “out-group” individuals. 

In other words, the “Them” becomes a “We.” The teams aren’t working cooperatively over the fence. They are taking down the fence. 

So How Is This Actually Solved?

Research shows that the simple awareness of a shared team, school, company or language can be enough to re-align in and out groups.

The creation of shared goals or a mutual competitor can create this superordinate group - and a new in-group. This process of recategorization is one of the two major keys to creating a unified group. 

The other is simply having individuals (and teams) spend time in close contact - this is explained through the intergroup contact theory. Not surprisingly, many of the Internet recommendations on collaboration point to the value of encouraging close interpersonal contact and social time together. 

The bottom line on Us vs. Them is this: 

  1. Teams need to spend time together
  2. Teams need to find a shared identity powerful enough to deepen collaboration. 

Only the group can determine whether the shared identity is significant enough to facilitate this new group identity. “We are members of the same planet” may not be enough. “We are underestimated by the managers in Akron” might be. 

But we need to be real about it.

Is it enough in your organization to say that “we’re part of the same company?" 

It’s a tough call, and only the group itself can answer this question.

Success Criteria for Resolving "Us vs. Them"

As an organization attempts to build an expanding level of collaboration between its teams, the following questions should be considered:

  1. How is a new group identity being formed between the teams?
  2. How can our team members organically generate their identity rather than have it decided for them?
  3. In what ways can teams benefit from contact - even when they may be distributed geographically?
  4. What tools might help facilitate collaboration and change?
  5. How can we baseline our current level of collaboration and observe its change?
  6. How can we build trust on a team enough to participate wholeheartedly on collaboration efforts?
  7. How can managers communicate and then live up to the premise that everything is accomplished through teamwork?

Collaboration is serious business.

To learn how the Bartlett System helps teams develop and measure collaboration efforts, please contact me directly. 

Through team workshops, state-of-the-art marketing research tools, and analytics designed for mobile, we facilitate the the development of cohesive, aligned and impactful teams.

The Top Online Team Collaboration and “Us v. Them" Articles

Topics: Collaboration, Leadership, Us vs. Them, Team Building

Adam Nathan

Written by Adam Nathan

Adam has been called "the John Ive of business simplification." He brings twenty years of experience helping business and non-profit leaders drive value with actionable insights. As a long-time business owner and CEO himself, he understands that creating value from information is never a given and that creating a data driven culture is a learned skill.

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