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Them, Us and All of Us

I’ve been really struck in the last few weeks about how many times I’ve heard a pronounced them-and-us between “IT” and “THE BUSINESS”.  Any of these kinds of statements familiar to you?

IT:  You (THE BUSINESS) don’t listen to us.  We need more authority!

THE BUSINESS:  Hey, IT, excuse me for saying this, but you don’t seem to get how important this is!

IT:  THE BUSINESS doesn’t know what it wants!  It keeps changing direction!

THE BUSINESS:  You lot in IT are expensive and complicated.  Why can’t you make it simple?

IT:  Why doesn’t THE BUSINESS get why we need to invest in our ‘foundations’

THE BUSINESS:  Why doesn’t it work?  What did you in IT do this time?

Then notice how easily you can replace these with ‘PEOPLE’, say, and ‘GOVERNMENT’, e.g.

GOVERNMENT:  Why don’t the PEOPLE get why we need to invest in our ‘foundations’

PEOPLE:  Why doesn’t it work?  What did you in GOVERNMENT do this time?

I expect that you’ve heard things like this, and if you pay attention, it’s happening all the time.

A well-known social psychology principle is at play here: in-groups and out-groups.  In-groups represent those we identify with (our family, our team, our political position etc.), out-groups are those we don’t identify with (a different group, a different political view etc.).  In terms of survival, being alone is not an optimum strategy, and humans have evolved with a need to seek inclusion and avoid exclusion (e.g. Leary and Baumeister. 1995.  The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation).

The key is that we (humans) typically hold a positive attitude to our in-group, and a negative attitude to the out-group.  This manifests in all sorts of ways like preferential treatment in-group, a desire to prove superiority over the out-group, and aggressive responses to conflicts of interest. 


Take the Manchester Derby between Manchester United and Manchester City.  We have high numbers of supporters that live within or close to Manchester – likely with many things in common besides this – who are part of a ‘them and us’ rivalry since 1881.  Similar with Manchester United and Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, fans are fiercely loyal and headlines like this from the Standard aren’t uncommon: “Two football fans have been arrested following violent clashes ahead of today’s north London derby.”

Another example can be seen clearly in UK politics right now.  We have obvious (and almost literal) in-groups and out-groups.  Observe more closely and you’ll see splits within those too; groups that are further right within right-of-centre groups, groups that are further left than left-of-centre groups and so on. 

So, back to the IT / THE BUSINESS split?  As you will have already realised, any one of us is likely to belong to multiple in-groups – our football team, our company, our country, our family etc, and there is interplay between these.  In business, we’re likely to have at least our team and our organisation as ‘dominant’ in-groups depending on the situation.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of articles and studies that describe how COLLABORATION outperforms COMPETITION inside and outside business (look to HBR, Forbes, A Better Way, or Capitalism’s Toxic Assumptions by Eve Poole here). 

The question is then, what happens when we prioritise the needs of our own team or function as an in-group, over the needs of our organisation as an out-group?  What happens when ‘we’ in IT dismiss (or at least are sceptical about) the ideas or thoughts of THE BUSINESS?  Or THE BUSINESS dismisses IT’s need for something.  I wonder who wins.  I suspect it’s not going to be the organisation.

Wouldn’t it be more valuable to collaborate more widely, and make the in-group of the organisation stand out more than partisan teams?   I think we might just stand a better chance of success, and with the current buzz around business agility it’s crucial.  THE BUSINESS will not respond well to IT imposing an agile way of working (it worked with us, so catch up, will you!), and IT have a good chance of some shame/intimidation reactions if THE BUSINESS ‘gets it’ better.  Understand those risks and plan with them in mind.

For the moment I’m resolved to continue to call people out when they fall into the “them” or “us” trap and encourage you to do the same.

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