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superordinate goals

Us Versus Them

"The school bus broke down!"

“The school bus broke down!”

How easy is it for an us-versus-them situation to arise? How often do we define our group as different from – and therefore better than – another group? The short answers: It’s surprisingly easy and it happens all the time.

In my professional life, I often saw us-versus-them attitudes arise between headquarters and the field. Staffers at head-quarters thought they were in a good position to direct field activities. People in the field thought the folks at headquarters just didn’t have a clue about the real world.

Headquarters and the field are typically separated by many factors, including geography, planning horizons, rank, age, academic experience, and tenure. Each side has plenty of reasons to feel different from – and superior to – the other side. But how many reasons does it take to generate us-versus-them attitudes?

In the early 1970s, the social psychologist Henri Tajfel tried to work out the minimum requirements for one group to discriminate against another group. It turns out that it doesn’t take much. People who are separated into groups based on their shirt color develop us-versus-them attitudes. People who are separated based on the flip of a coin do the same. Tajfel’s minimal group paradigm is quite simple: The minimum requirement to create us-versus-them attitudes is the existence of two groups.

Us-versus-them attitudes are completely natural. They arise without provocation. There’s no conspiracy. All we need is two groups. I sometimes hear managers say, “Let’s not develop us-versus-them attitudes here.” But that’s completely unnatural. Something about our human nature requires us to develop such attitudes when two groups exist. It can’t not happen.

We can’t avoid us-versus-them attitudes but we can dissolve them. We can’t stop them from starting but we can stop them once they have started.

The pioneering research on this was the Robbers Cave Experiment conducted in 1954. Muzafer and Carolyn Sherif, professors at the University of Oklahoma, selected two dozen 12-year-old boys from suburban Oklahoma City and sent them off to summer camp at Robbers Cave State Park. The boys were quite similar in terms of ethnicity and socioeconomic status. None of the boys knew each other at the beginning of the experiment.

The boys were randomly divided into two groups and housed in different areas of the campground. Initially, the groups didn’t know of each other’s existence. They discovered each other only when they began to compete for camp resources, like playing fields or dining halls. Once they discovered each other, they quickly named their groups: Rattlers and Eagles.

So far, the boys’ behavior was entirely predictable. The research question was: How do you change such behavior to reduce us-versus-them attitudes?

The researchers first measured the impact of mere contact. The researchers thought that by getting the boys to mingle – in dining halls or on camp buses, for example – they could overcome negative attitudes and build relationships. The finding: mere contact did not change attitudes for the better. Indeed, when contact was coupled with competition for resources, it increased friction rather than reducing it.

The researchers then moved on to superordinate goals. The two groups had to cooperate to achieve a goal that neither group could achieve on its own. For example, the researchers arranged for the camp bus to “break down”. They also arranged for the water supply to go dry. Rattlers and Eagles had to work together to fix the problems. The finding: cooperation on a larger goal reduced friction and the two groups began to integrate. Rattlers and Eagles actually started to like each other.

The research that the Sherifs started has now grown into a domain known as realistic conflict theory or RCT. The theory suggests that groups will develop resentful attitudes towards other groups, especially when they compete for resources in a zero-sum situation. According to Wikipedia, RCT suggests that “…positive relations can only be restored if superordinate goals are in place.”

The moral of the story is simple: you can’t prevent us-versus-them attitudes but you can fix them. Just find a problem that requires cooperation and collaboration.



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