Tribal Psychology in Corporate Change: 7 ways to overcome “Us-versus-Them”

When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.”
– Mark Twain

“How do they not get it?”  “Why do they think that way?” "Why do they behave that way?"

How often do you find yourself asking such questions?

The distinction within these questions is, of course, the pronoun they. At times consciously and at other times, subconsciously, we all have moments where we participate in, and observe others participate in, us-versus-them dramas. In work. In politics. In religion. In society. In the infinite depths of social media comment threads. Even in what we wear or what we eat.

It turns out we humans have an innate need to associate with groups. It’s a behavioral tool for the survival of our species—rather convenient for serious matters (fighting off dinosaurs, going into battle)—unfortunately, the instinct is so engrained, we’ll form groups over the paltriest of reasons too. And we’ll show favoritism toward our group time after time—even when it means being wrong.

David McRaney provides a wonderful in-depth explanation in his You Are Not So Smart podcast episode entitled, “How our unchecked tribal psychology pollutes politics, science, and just about everything else.” It’s a fascinating view into how we sort ourselves into groups over just about anything; how this behavior evolved in homo sapiens; and how social media has amplified our ability to identify with groups at unprecedented levels.

McRaney explores how this dynamic is intensifying our social divide in government politics.

I’ll tackle lighter fare: corporate change initiatives. Because, let’s face it, corporate change initiatives almost always result in some form of us versus them even though, unlike war or fighting dinosaurs, groups within a corporation should be on the same team. Unifying and forging down a strategic path is essential to a company’s success. Fortunately, there are 7 ways we can prevail over our less evolved instincts.

But first, what evidence is there that says this is how we tend to behave?

McRaney shares a fun study that starts with a picture of dots.

Researchers asked each participant, while alone, to estimate how many dots were in a picture, and then the researchers randomly told the individual whether he or she was an under-estimator or an over-estimator.

Next, they brought the “over-estimators” together and the “under-estimators” together with their newfound labels, and asked them to complete another experiment that would help determine how people make difficult choices.

This experiment involved allocating money. The research participants were given money and a choice: they could either (1) give everyone in both groups equal amounts of money, or (2) they could give one group a little more money and the other group a little less money. 

What the researchers consistently found was that the participants allocated more money to their in-group rather than splitting the allocation equally between the groups. In other words, they favored their own group over the greater good.

Upon hearing this, my first thought as a concerned citizen was, “Oh wow. The human race is screwed!” Universal income when the robots take all the jobs? Unlikely.

My second thought as an organizational change consultant was, “Oh yeah. That explains a lot.”

How many times have we seen corporations craft internal communications that convey some change is for the greater good of the company? (Guilty.) And how many times do we hear employees berate such messages? (A lot.)

The greater good goes against our nature. Tribalism is a basic human drive.

At the heart of it is self-esteem. According to Lilliana Mason (a professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland who was interviewed by McRaney in the podcast), we have a psychological need for inclusion. But—and it’s a big but—that inclusion has to come with some exclusivity. In order for us to feel special, some people can’t get into our group.

Anyone who works for a corporation, big or small, has seen this play out in the workplace.

“We’re different.”

“That won’t work for us. We do things differently.”

“That’s corporate. We’re not like corporate.”

It’s quite the conundrum. And it gets worse. The podcast goes on to explain that tribal loyalty is so strong, it affects how we interpret facts.

McRaney intrigues us with the James Comey testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 8, 2017. Millions of people tuned in to watch the anticipated drama unfold. They all heard Comey testify: one set of statements; one set of facts...

...and there were utter bi-polar interpretations made by Democrats and Republicans after the hearing.

I had a similar experience with a group of stakeholders that would be adjusting to a new, more open office workspace. Peer groups at two other locations had already gone through the change, so we had a brilliant idea: ask those who already experienced the new workspace to share their thoughts and perspectives with the group that hadn’t yet experienced it. We filmed video clips of the experienced employees speaking about what they liked, and to make sure it was believable, we also asked them to talk about what challenges they had and what were some tradeoffs.

Did it work? Not exactly. The response?

“They were forced to say that.”

(They volunteered.)

“They’re at corporate. They’re different.”

(They had the same job role.)

“It sounds scripted.”

(There was no script.)

One set of statements. One set of facts. A totally different interpretation.

Granted, there’s a lot going on here. Confirmation bias is certainly a factor. That’s our tendency to seek out information that supports our beliefs. But it’s also fascinating to see how tribal psychology further exacerbates many employees’ (and citizens’) unwillingness to change their minds about something. 

We would rather be wrong if it keeps us in good standing with our "tribe," than be right and go against it.

In fact, when the status of our group is threatened, as is oft the case in corporate change initiatives, we start fighting harder because we are fighting for our self-esteem. We fight to uphold or improve the status of our group. As Mason puts it, it’s a fight for our self-worth. It’s a fight for our identity.

Ugh. (Exhausted sigh.) So, what do we do?

Here are 7 things to try. You’ve likely experienced some of these if you’ve been through a formal corporate change effort.

1.  Focus on the problem, not the people.

You often hear this set as a ground rule by a facilitator before a contentious meeting. But the evidence shows that when you threaten a position, people are less angry than when you threaten the group.

McRaney advises that politicizing an issue is the worst thing that can happen, “Once an issue becomes politicized, it just leaves the realm of facts and figures. It becomes a way to tell ‘us’ from ‘them.’”

We see this play out every day in US politics. It’s similar in Corporate America. “Marketing thinks this.” “Procurement thinks that.” Accentuating a group title sounds accusatory and condescending. It infers blame. It threatens self-esteem.

Omit the group association, and just talk about the issue.

Recently, I was asked to help a company with organizational change management on a process and technology initiative, but when I spoke to the executives about the project, they said what they really needed was a neutral mediator. They needed me to represent both the business and technology teams and help convey respective thoughts and perspectives without judgment or bias. The two groups had a long, complicated history, and they knew this project had the potential to be difficult. To their credit, they recognized it and acted early to address it—just that simple acknowledgment sets the stage for more openness to work together and a willingness to find common ground. Having someone involved as a neutral mediator, or (in a more positive frame) dual advocate, can help maintain that mindset throughout the project, especially when times get tough, which inevitably will happen. 

2.  Humanize one another.

Years ago, I bristled whenever I heard someone define change management as “parties and posters.” Thankfully I haven’t heard that in a decade or so. Still, there is a case to be made for building relationships.

Once we get to know each other, as people, who have families or interests or a special talent, it helps us work through problems together. Find time and space for team building activities or ice breakers that help groups get to know one another in a holistic way. Simpler yet, invite a member of the other “tribe” to have lunch or coffee with you.

3.  Find a way to help the group maintain their exclusivity and self-esteem.

This is ultimately what we’re afraid of losing, so this is what we need to help each other keep.

You can come up with fun and creative ways to do this. What’s important to the group? Their creativity? Their accomplishments? Their spirit of innovation? Their name? Their locale? Find something of historical or contextual significance that the group relates to or is proud of and feature it prominently.

This may be difficult when it comes to organizational restructure initiatives; after all, that usually entails breaking up a group. Whatever is their pride point, feature it prominently with their new team or in their new workspace.

4.  Engage members of the tribe in the change process.

Ah, the good old, “change agent network.” The idea is that if you can involve and convince a group of influential employees that the change is agreeable, then they will influence their peers in a positive way.

What is more important, though, is that this entails early engagement. When you include people in the change process, they become a part of it instead of it being done to them. When people have some element of control over their situation, they are more apt to be supportive.

5.  Give folks a way to experience the change before it fully materializes.

There are countless ways to do this. A common practice in system or technology implementations is when end users are given the opportunity to practice using the new technology in a safe environment—a sandbox, as it’s often called.  

For process change initiatives, a fun technique I’ve used is to simulate the process. Get all the players in a room together each representing the integrated job roles that are part of the process. Provide them with a typical scenario and give them simplified props or documents that help them act out the process. Inevitably someone misses a step or a key piece of information highlighting the habit that needs to change. The receiving group can explain how it affects them. Then the groups are able to have a conversation to understand what each needs to do differently. You're effectively taking something that may happen over several weeks or even months and condensing it into a 2-hour session. It’s an excellent way to create empathy between teams that have integrated, real-time processes or complicated handoffs. For added kicks, have them switch roles to see what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.

Workplace design initiatives are one of the most challenging for creating experiences ahead of the actual change. Mock-ups can be installed and tried out by employees, which are incredibly helpful, but until employees are immersed in the new space, it can be hard for them to imagine life the new environment. Still, some experience is better than no experience and I’ve seen early engagement activities combined with mock-ups make a huge difference for psychologically preparing employees well before move-in day.

6.  Grow self-awareness.

Becoming part of a tribe may be how we’re wired, but we also have wiring that helps us recognize when we participate in us-versus-them dramas. It’s often unintentional like when we insert the pronoun, they, into what we consider a trivial statement. It takes immense discipline to stay attuned to the issue at hand and not the person or people. A lack of self-awareness makes us our own worst enemy.

“We have met the enemy and he is us.” – Walt Kelly

Exercises for mindfulness, like meditation or journaling can help, as can engaging an executive coach or simply asking others for feedback. We all have weak moments and need reminding—being open to receiving those reminders is the key.

7.  Expect it to take time.

Yes, it’s a slog: involving people early, forming change agent networks, communicating repeatedly, creating experiences, working through differences, getting to know one another, building trust...I once heard an executive liken it to “watching paint dry on a wall.” But know that spending the time up front will ultimately save time and unnecessary conflict when the change event occurs. And as a bonus, both groups will likely learn from each other and come up with unexpected solutions that actually do support the “greater good.”

In Closing...

We may never eliminate us-versus-them mentality; after all, it is a survival instinct that I’m sure will come in handy at some point even though dinosaurs are extinct. (We still have the zombie apocalypse, right?) But until then, we can strive to lessen this tendency by becoming more aware of it. Even though it’s our nature, we can overcome it.

When you find yourself saying, “Why do they think that way?” stop yourself and remember it’s a group with unique experiences and a unique identity that stands to lose something. Process through the 7 steps, especially taking into consideration your own tendencies that play into the us-versus-them dramas. Practice patience. These types of changes take a lot of time, but will pay off in the long run.

I hope by thinking through these 7 steps, your next change initiative will go smoother. How have you seen us-versus-them dramas play out, and what techniques have you used to overcome them?