“Us” Vs “Them”: How to prevent intergroup conflict and foster a harmonious workplace
31st August 2017
A common issue experienced by people in the workplace is the existence of an “us” versus “them” mentality among coworkers. These divisions may arise through the existence of different roles in the workplace. For example, tensions may arise between kennel staff and cattery staff or between the administration and veterinary staff. They may also arise from differences in levels of experience or from simply working in different geographical locations or sites.
Typically, intergroup conflicts or tensions arise in the workplace when group members see themselves as more alike, more highly skilled or harder working than the other group. Tensions can also be more likely when groups must compete for limited resources like funding, space, recognition or praise.
You might hear the following markers of intergroup conflict or tensions:
- “They need to get their act together”
- “Why are we busting our gut while the other group sits around and does nothing?”
- “They are only interested in the bottom line and don’t care about animal welfare”
- “I’m tired of always having to fix up those people’s mistakes”
Why do “us” versus “them” mentalities occur?
Forming groups is a natural human behaviour. We are social animals and because of this, we form groups easily. Further, being part of a group contributes to our identity and self-esteem. This leads us to favour people in our in-group over people in our out-group. Social psychologists call this in-group bias. Just think about the divisions between cat people and dog people for example. Research finds conflicting evidence about the existence of personality differences between dog and cat people, yet dog people often perceive themselves to be more social and less neurotic than cat people. Those who identify as cat people, on the other hand, view themselves as more independent and open than dog people.
This natural tendency for forming groups and seeing ourselves as different and better than the other group was clearly demonstrated in a now famous social psychology experiment known as the Robbers Cave. In this experiment, a group of fifth grade boys were randomly assigned to two groups and taken on a camp. Neither group knew of the existence of the other because they were situated at opposite ends of the camp site. After just one week, the boys in each group bonded with each other and created their own group identities. They even named their camps; the Rattlers and the Eagles.
Upon finding out about the other group, the boys started calling the others “intruders”. This “us” versus “them” mentality was later enhanced by the camp organisers (who were actually researchers) when they required the two groups to compete for resources like trophies. Tensions, however, grew to outright animosity as they started name calling and even raiding each others camps. The two groups were eventually brought together harmoniously by encouraging them work together towards a common goal but this took much effort on the part of the researchers.
What is striking about this experiment is that it shows just how quickly groups and group tensions are created. When we extend this to workplace we can see just how easy these divisions can arise.
What is the effect of an “us” versus “them” mentality?
The formation of groups within the workplace is not all bad. In fact, it can lead to greater levels of efficiency, improved quality of service and increased innovation. Some level of conflict can also be good. Differences of opinion between groups can lead to greater problem solving and greater levels of creativity. However, when intergroup conflicts get personal or occur regularly over routine and simple tasks, issues can arise. Intergroup conflicts can be a source of workplace stress and can significantly contribute to low job satisfaction and burnout. They can also lead to increased turnover and absenteeism. Further to this, intergroup conflicts can decrease the effectiveness of the workplace because attention and energy are directed towards addressing the conflict rather than working towards the organisations’ goals and values.
How to reduce intergroup conflicts and foster a harmonious workplace.
If you’re finding that there are conflicts and tensions arising in your workplace that are leading to issues try the following:
- Have fun together and create shared experiences. Having fun and sharing a laugh is a great way to decrease stress hormones and increase oxytocin (the bonding hormone).
- Encourage expressions of gratitude towards each other.
- Create shared goals so that groups work together to achieve an outcome.
- Discuss with the staff the arbitrary nature of groups to decrease tensions. You may wish to use the Robbers Cave experiment as an example or demonstrate it yourself by creating groups on the basis of eye colour or football team preferences.
- Establish or reinforce commonalities between groups. For example, establish a shared space where everyone can debrief at the end of the day.
- Remove differences such as uniform difference, between groups where possible.
- Introduce cross work visits if tensions exist between people who have different roles or work in different locations.
Gosling, S. D., Sandy, C. J., & Potter, J. (2010). Personalities of self-identified “Dog People” and “Cat People”. Anthrozoos, 23, 213-222.
Perrine, R. M. & Osbourne, H. L. (1998). Personality characteristics of dog and cat persons. Anthrozoos, 11, 33-40.
Podberscek, A. L. & Gosling, S. D. (2000). Personality research on pets and their owners: Conceptual issues and review. In A. L. Podberscek, E. S. Paul & J. A. Serpell (Eds.), Companion Animals and Us: Exploring the Relationships between People and Pets (pp 143–167). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Schabracq, M. J., Winnubst, J. A. M. & Cooper, C. L. (Eds). (2003). The handbook of work and health psychology. West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.