Us vs. Them in Business

I recently finished David Berreby’s Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind. Overall it is a pretty good book and if you are interested in psychology and neuroscience, Berreby gives pretty fair treatment to the multiple sides of various issues he covers.

One of the basic ideas in the book is that our brains are wired to automatically group us into human ‘kinds.’ We are members of multiple kinds, so I am a member of Parrothead, professional, college graduate, Kentuckian, basketball fan, generation X, and a whole bunch of other ‘kinds’ at any one time. These kinds shift around, and which ones are important change with context, time, and other things. He gives fascinating examples of people being treated differently based on which kind they are lumped with at any given time.

I’ve written on occasion about why companies perform poorly after their transition from small entrepreneurial firms to large complex organizations. I typically attributed it to new problems associate with size, a declining level of qualitiy in the average hire, difficulties managing complexity, a lack of follow through, and some other things along these same lines. But this book made me wonder… is the real problem a shifting of the “us vs them” paradigm?

When companies start up, everyone is close knit. This encourages everyone to go the extra mile. We enjoy being part of a team. There is often a common enemy. Googlers see themselves as against Microsoft and Yahoo. AMD-ers see themselves as against Intel. People associate with a ‘kind’ that represents everyone at their work. As the company grows, the split changes. An employee that once thought of himself as the ‘Google kind’ now sees himself as the ‘Google engineering kind.’ The battle line is no longer Google vs. Microsoft, but Google engineering vs. Google marketing. The company breaks into factions that blame their problems on the other factions. There is more internal friction and less unity looking at a common enemy.

Maybe that’s all new age psychobabble, or maybe there is some truth to it. I don’t know that anyone has looked at company transitions from this perspective in any kind of study, but on the surface it seems like there might be some validity to this idea. If so, the key to managing the transition is to find a way to keep that team/kind perspective as the company grows.