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.
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.