I tried unsuccessfully for years to get my teams to stop thinking in terms of Us vs. Them. “Please,” I would say, “let’s collaborate!” Head-nods of agreement, even a promise of change, and… the same behaviors.
Lather/Rinse/Repeat. Watch the leader bang his head against virtual walls. Watch the frustrated leader threaten to bang his head against real walls.
Recognize that we are deeply wired to see the world in Us vs. Them.
It’s practically genetic. People identify with groups, and they unconsciously define Us. People need a target to work against in order to make progress. Often that target is characterized as Them.
You aren’t going to change this deep wiring. I’ve found a better way: reframe and transform the Us and the Them in Us vs. Them. Reframing for a better Us and Them gives your group powerful outcomes because you’re working with the way people are wired instead of against it. There are three steps.
First: Identify a constructive Them target.
Our unhealthy, unhelpful default Them is usually a person or set of people. We enjoy a common enemy, don’t we? It’s not our best self, but let’s be frank: we’re so thrilled to have an enemy that we’ll find them and label them. We want to personalize the source of our frustrations and anger. We want a throat to choke and a focus for our blame. We must recognize that people are precious, made in the image of God. Therefore we must be very careful if we ever identify individuals and groups as Them.
This is usually the biggest change needed. Instead of a person, consider what wrong needs to be set right. Where is the gap between what is and what could be? What could be 10x better than it is today? Pick the target and make it your Them target.
Second: Get the right Us.
Choosing the right Us is finding the inclusive team of people you need to fight the target Them. It likely includes someone who was originally among the Them. Leaders can leverage the “enemy” we have in common to help us become a stronger Us.
Take no half-hearted measures when you’ve selected the correct Them target and a motivated Us. Unleash the energy necessary over time to defeat, conquer, and obliterate your chosen Them target. Study the enemy target, seek out, and exploit weaknesses. This is how we measure progress.
Erik Tyler says
Glenn, rather than a statement, I have a request for clarification.
In your first point you said: “Instead of a person, consider what wrong needs to be set right … Pick the target and make it your Them target.”
Then in your second point, you said, “Choosing the right Us … likely includes someone who was originally among the Them.”
You’ve suggested that “THEM” be a problem, not a person or people; but then suggested choosing your “US” including PEOPLE who “were originally among the THEM.” How can one choose an “US” team from among a previous “THEM,” if we’ve switched our thinking to “THEM” being problems and not people? I’m not saying you’ve necessarily contradicted yourself, only that I’m unable at first reading to rectify these two suggestions. What is your thinking on how people on our team might have previously been part of a “problem” we are trying to address, and not a group of people who are seen AS the problem or enemy?
Having read many of your posts, I’m certain this is merely an issue of “the curse of knowledge,” where you have something in your head that is so much a part of our thinking that it seemed it would be obvious to the rest of us, and that a little further explanation will be all that is needed to catch readers up to speed.
Glenn Brooke says
Erik, thanks for your request for clarification. Let’s do a hypothetical to illustrate.
One group has historically said that some guy named Bob *is* the problem. We’re against him, and he’s an idiot and only lives to make our life miserable. The real issue is that Bob is simply executing an inefficient, outdated process. Make the PROCESS the “Them” instead of Bob. The leadership opportunity here would be to engage Bob as part of your “Us.”
You can go bigger and nobler, too. Perhaps it is not that your neighbor is a member of a different political party than you, but it’s a question of economic policy that needs to be the focal point. Move from demonizing your neighbor as one of “Them” and shift the attention to “how can we best support small businesses in our city?” to identify the real problem.
At the DNA level, ever human in history is remarkably similar. You, me, Adolf Hitler, your mother — we share a lot of identical DNA sequence. Even if you don’t ascribe to “made in the image of God” there are good biological reasons to shift the “them” away from a person or a people.
Adam Smith says
“We want to personalize the source of our frustrations and anger. We want a throat to choke and a focus for our blame. ” People are easy targets, but you are right on when you say we need to be careful when doing so with “Them”. Very insightful and so true. Great post, Glenn.