Field notes: Reflections on ‘us and them’.
Sometimes a rejection of something makes its alternative appealing even if that alternative in itself might have been rejectable on its own merits. Between A and B, and not liking A, I go for B. I would perhaps not have got for B in itself. It’s just that I can’t stand A.
That suddenly tempting and magnetic option of B, may just have been simply blessed by being in the other side of the bridge. Once I have decided, now there is a clear A, and a clear B, and a bridge.
So, the ‘us and them’ is often constructed by the rejection of ‘them’, more than, necessarily, any egotistical view of the ‘us’. But once the rejection has started, the list of reasons will steadily increase to prove that the distinction makes sense. Cognitive dissonance and halo effect have the day.
‘Them’ are now not just different but also unlikeable, wrong, perhaps dangerous, certainly dubious, possibly non trustable, and certainly in need to be kept at arms length. Milder forms of ‘them-ness’ may remain at the level of them as a pain, them as unpleasant, or them as inferior, not that the later word is to be used without consequences.
The more a ‘them-ness’ is build, the stronger the identity of the us, so the separation is self-reinforcing. Us get bigger by them getting bigger.
Nationalist ideologies are built on this. Whole attitudes towards immigrants, asylum seekers, refugees etc., are built on this. We change the labels to find the less uncomfortable one, but separation is separation. And separation is reinforced by any paranoid feeling, expressed often in the form of victimism.
In organizations, we do suffer, by any standards, a mild version of all these. Our ‘us and them’ include HQs, ex-pats, affiliates, leadership at the top, geographical units or even just ‘those people in the second floor’. The annual Edelman Trust Barometer gets this every year: the greatest source of trust inside our organization is ‘people like me’.
Growing the us at the expenses of them is a temptation and, frankly, very easy to achieve. But there are some choices such as ‘us with them’. That is, we may still be different but we are here together.
The art of togetherness does not come from the sky. In fact, humanity has not crafted it yet. We invent labels such as multiculturalism or cross-cultural stuff, in the hope that the label comes with answers attached. But making sense of them and realizing their potential value is hard work.
To make things more complicated, even a superficial take from social anthropology will tell us that it is impossible to get rid of the us and them bridge completely. Our tribal tendency is today very strong, even in the 21st Century. The labels of the tribes have changed but the sense of belonging has only grown, even if to ideas and places not featured in the anthropology classics.
Perhaps we are stuck with us and them, and fighting it is naïve.
The Holy Grail is somewhere around keeping our differences and yet being and work together; not in pursuing the total dilution of differences, nor the imposition of working together pretending that the bridge between A and B will be crossed daily; but learning the humanity of doing it together. That together of Drucker’s definition of the organization: ordinary people making extraordinary things together
Us and them is real easy. Us with them, is another story.