There is No Them

Lessons on leadership from the world of game development

Creating Us Without a Them

with 3 comments

A common tactic for bringing people together is to give them something to unite against. Its such a common thing that few of us ever stop to consider there might be other ways. Sometimes the ‘them’ is a specific group of people (ie a sports team, a company, another school), sometimes its more broadly defined (ie blonds), sometimes the ‘them’ is portrayed as an abstract concept (ie poverty). Regardless of how, any system designed to bring people together that relies on the exclusion of some is fundamentally flawed, and certainly is inappropriate in the work place.

This lesson first occurred to me a few years ago, as the organization I was a part of was seeing rapid growth. What started as a team of ~25 was more then tripling in size within several months, largely as a result of the great work the team had done to demonstrate that the opportunity for our business deserved a significant increase in investment. To grow this quickly the leadership asked a few key folks to step up and lead the new teams being developed. I was fascinated by how much the particular person asked to start each team so dramatically impacted the culture that developed within that team. One of the most striking differences to emerge, as the various new teams were growing, was that one team’s leader chose to pit his team (call the person Bob) against the rest of us as the way to motivate and unify them, where the other teams (including mine) chose different techniques.

Bob’s technique bothered me from the outset. By defining his team the way he did he was destroying the fabric of what made the grouping of these teams powerful. Instead of positioning the other teams as allies in a larger effort, Bob made it clear to his team that doing more than what was absolutely required to help another team was not welcomed. The culture of cooperation and mutual success was disrupted by this, but to my chagrin, on a local level the technique seemed to be working. Bob’s team was coming together more quickly than the other teams. What was going on?

People come together in the face of a shared threat more quickly than they do a shared vision. Ultimately, grouping through exclusion is one way of positioning a possible threat. By playing on the fear response in each of us, as animals, leaders can manipulate us. But fear will only take a team so far. A team that starts based on fear may come out strong, but will begin to fray sooner as well.

Bob’s team, having gotten off to a quick start, soon started to fragment. The team begin to fight amongst themselves. Though still a small team, Bob’s key staff started building their own domains within the team, using the same techniques Bob used. Now that sub groups of Bob’s team were splitting into Us and Thems Bob’s organization began to stumble. As the other teams, including mine, were clearly hitting their stride, Bob’s team began to implode.

Bob didn’t last very much longer as the leader, and the team as a whole drifted for a while. Eventually, under new leadership, and with the addition of a lot of new hires (which diluted the bad blood of the original team) the organization got back up on its feet. Some of the people involved came away with the right lesson – that Bob’s techniques were ultimately counter productive.

A leader has the responsibility to bring their team together. But not all methods for this are equal. Once you realize that unity through exclusion is, in its simplest form, based on fear, it becomes clear that this tactic is not sustainable. The wise leader knows how to build an Us without building a Them.

The very notion that Them is a construct we create is itself a glimmer of an even deeper truth. In another post I will connect this idea – that Them is something we as humans create – to a truth I now hold to be sacred – There Is No Them.

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Written by joshuahoward

March 10, 2009 at 10:05 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. One aspect of this behavior in the workplace that is not often realized is that it can be rather inefficient in resources. If an attitude of us vs. them is encouraged then what is lost is the ability to work together for common solutions and practices. The end result is that the groups all will perform their work with their own influences and will tend to develop a “Not Invented Here” mentality. Afterall, if the “them” is considered a competitor, then your ideas must be superior or better or else you are not winning.

    In organizations working this way similar problems among similar groups will have different solutions. Rather than continually working towards the best product or practices, this behavior will lead to multiple processes and activities, all doing essentially the same thing. This duplicates effort and represents a waste of resources.

    Bruce

    March 29, 2009 at 7:22 pm

  2. Great post, really got me thinking 🙂

    I have to admit that my first reaction was, as a keen sportsman, it seems ok to have a “them” – the other team – and although sports analogies don’t necessarily apply to work, I didn’t feel comfortable until I understood *why* it’s different. Why shouldn’t it be ok to have a “them” at work, provided of course “they” are external and opposed to your interests (competitor, litigant, whatever)? I think a lot of it’s to do with the way the two systems work: sports provide you with a new “them” each week, in an almost artificial way – whereas businesses have far fewer competitors, and focussing on “beating” them isn’t really the point of good business. Companies will get far more mileage out of a “let’s build something great” attitude than “let’s do better than them”.

    But also, the more I thought about it, the more I felt that the _best_ sports teams I’ve played in didn’t spend a lot of time on the concept of “them” either. We’d use “them” temporarily, just before and during the match, but more as a temporary boost, an extra few percent of motivation. The strength of the team always came from extensive time spent training and socialising together. There are also quite a number of coaching cliches along the lines of “play our game and we’ll win”.

    On a different note, I’d be really interested to know what specific techniques you’d use at work to build “us” without invoking “them”. I’ll give you an accidental example: one of the best things that ever happened to my old team (the technology team at RTW) was when the company outgrew its office space and the tech team was temporarily moved out into a small rented office of our own. This didn’t create any kind of negative feeling towards the rest of the company (if anything, we missed them) but really brought us together as a group – so strongly, in fact, that we still get together every week, even though our team doesn’t exist any more and we’re scattered around the company. It’s not exactly reusable as a technique though! 🙂

    lukehalliwell

    July 9, 2009 at 10:18 pm

  3. Your comment about the best teams don’t dwell on them is wonderful, and very consistent with what I have found whether in sports or business.
    I will put on the schedule a post dedicated to ways to create us without a them, but also would love to hear what others have to say about it (accidenal or not).

    joshuahoward

    July 10, 2009 at 5:40 am


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