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Leadership Newsletter #135

I’m in with the In-Crowd

Kids dressed as superheros, 3 as batman, 1 as spiderman, looking left out

I notice regularly in my work doing coaching, working with Governing Bodies or helping teams, how the organisation I am working in (let’s call them Organisation A) often views Organisation B as “the enemy”. If not the enemy, then the cause of many of Organisation A’s difficulties and certainly an easy target for blame. Of course there may be some truth in those assertions but the qualifying word “some” is an important one here.

Too often I think that Organisation B can be used as a sloppy scapegoat for issues that have failed to be addressed in Organisation A or for outcomes that were less than satisfactory. This also applies inside organisations where another directorate or team is the “whipping boy” because of perceived weaknesses or failings. Pointing this out as a coach or facilitator is rarely popular. It is sometimes helpful therefore to draw leaders’ attention to the fact that this concept of Organisation A as the “in-crowd” and Organisation B as the “out-crowd” has a sociological and psychological basis.

The notion of in-groups and out-groups was made popular by Henri Tajfel (a social psychologist) in 1971 in developing social identity theory. As we – on many occasions – get our social identity from the groups we belong to, people form self-preferencing in-groups very quickly. They may do this because of arbitrary or invented characteristics that discriminate their group from another. The theory also asserts that as we (in Organisation A) make group evaluations we do it in a comparative way that can easily lead to biases favouring our group in terms of the judgements we make and the behaviours we display. Put simply our (Organisation A’s) success is down to our qualities and abilities and any failures are down to bad luck and/or issues outside our control. In contrast any success for Organisation B is down to luck or the help they received. Their lack of success is because of innate personality and/or ability failings.

This bias (or rather a combination of biases) is damaging for team and organisation growth and development. While accepting that there can be comfort in formulating in-group/out-group distinctions, these barriers prevent understanding and dialogue between organisations, reinforce negativity and limit cohesion.

So what can you do about it?

These 3 tips (from Susan Krauss Whitbourne*) may make you hold back in joining the clamour of negativity about a team/department/organisation that can otherwise easily occur….

  1. Recognise the arbitrary nature of many in-group/out-group distinctions. The example of pedestrians and motorists is perhaps the easiest one for understanding this point. As a motorist you may be frustrated by the activities of some pedestrians at junctions but when you become a pedestrian you may be concerned about the way motorists act and the danger that causes. Your in-group at one moment may be your out-group the next.
  2. Put yourself in the place of the out-group members. Think about times when you've been put in an out-group position and remember how painful that was. Try to think about your inner security by being confident about your own identity rather than denigrating others.
  3. Look for commonalities between the “in-crowd” and the “out-crowd”. What binds them together, where are they striving for the same goal, how has bias played a role in manufacturing division rather than seeking agreement and coming together?

But of course none of these can be acted upon unless the issue is recognised and challenged, and that would seem to me to be an important part of any leadership role. Stop the collusion, groupthink and the race to attribute blame for failings or lack of delivery outside your own team or organisation.

* In-Groups, Out-Groups, and the Psychology of Crowds Susan Krauss Whitbourne Psychology Today 2010


Bob Baker, Healthskills
5 Jun 2020

  Bob Baker photo

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