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.

  • I think that it’s also much easier to keep a small group unified behind a common purpose. For example, 5 individuals find one another, and because of their common thinking, set off on an agreed upon goal.

    But when you reach the size of a Wal-Mart, with over a million employees, trying to keep unity becomes near impossible. Naturally, we read about all of the push and pull that occurs WITHIN the company itself.

  • Yet the NYC fire departement with over 30,000 maintains it passion for its purpose. (I also found a lot of shared purpose at IKEA.) And by the way it can work very well at the team level

    You’re right it’s easier for the smaller units. But most organizations give up and don’t even try the few simple acts that go far in sharing a purpose.

  • Startups do fail (probably more frequently) – so, it’s not that they are easier to “keep the team united” – in my experience, succesful startups have to go through a (sometimes painful) “changing of the guard” as the bulk of the work evolves from 80% creation to 80% management & administration –> very few people excel in both phases –> we’re either good at the startup kind of work or the corporate kind –> even if we do stay on through the transition, the startup kind of employee typically grows miserable as the company becomes “corporate” and their workload administrative – likewise the corporate folk often find the kind of work required in a startup beneath them – they enjoy corporate power and abhor the waste of mundane activities like booking your own travel etc. – e.g. I heard of a bean-counter who quit a startup after one day when he realized he was required to write checks by hand :-)

  • One thing that helps *a lot* is to distinguish between good and bad kinds of internal competition. Competition between two sales regions is usually good; competition between hardware and software engineering is usually bad. Competition between two product line divisions is usually good; competition between engineering and marketing is usually bad. Organizational decisions should be made to maximize good competition and minimize harmful competition.

  • In a recent article “Do You Really Want Relationships,” ( /I explore the ways the confusion of Us and Them prevents both good relationships with clients and good management. In modern business, people preach that they want relationships, but the truth is that they take a “Them” transaction to most encounters.

  • Tim B

    A quote I have always loved is that a business isno more than a group of people trying to get along and get something done with a certifcate filled in Delaware.
    Trabalism and the need to move away fromthe Norm is detialed in novels and sience fiction. The innovators create and can not fit in the new machine they invent. So they create a new world, a new tribe, The good and the bad is they can not for all they try be part of the machine. they create a new one that is small enough to understand and exsist within