It’s Us Versus Them


Teddy Roosevelt didn’t know he was aiding and abetting a popular corporate motivational principle when he said, “What this country needs is a good little war.” But that method of getting people fired up by confronting an adversary has permeated management circles in everything from sports to sales. Creating a real or artificial conflict for your work unit does have many immediate benefits. What is less known is the downside. Behavioral scientists have long known both sides of the equation. Here they are. 

When conflicts develop or are created between organizational units and continue to be unresolved, certain effects are predictable: 

∙ The conflict between groups is likely to increase the cohesiveness and the performance of the groups, but only during the conflict period. While the “fight” is going on, group members close ranks. “It’s us against them; we’ve got to pull together.” 

∙ Members’ evaluations of their own group improve. “We’re the best! We don’t have any problems over here. They’ve got ’em all!” 

∙ Each group judges its own solution to a problem to be the best. 

∙ Each group evaluates the position of their opponent negatively, with little effort expended to understand the other’s point of view. 

∙ Questions asked of the other group are designed to embarrass or weaken them in some way, rather than to generate facts, understanding and new solutions. 

∙ Perceptions of the group’s own position are distorted, as well as their understanding of the other group’s position. Even when people think they really understand where the other group is coming from, research indicates that a true understanding is blocked by concern for justifying the position of their own group. 

∙ Successful resolution of conflict thus becomes highly unlikely, since all groups are unaware of the distortions that exist in the factual knowledge that exists between them. 

∙ During the conflict period, work levels and intra-group cooperation are higher than normal. ∙ When competing groups select representatives to deal with other groups, they tend to choose hard- driving individuals rather than people skilled in facilitation. “We don’t want a namby-pamby representing US!” 

Many of the above conditions are seen as positive by many organizational leaders, especially in this country, and probably account for the popular belief that competition is an irreplaceable stimulus for success. But we haven’t looked yet at what happens when “the victor” is declared and the vanquished are identified. After the conflict- the downside

∙ The leader of the winning group gains in status, while the leader of the losing group is blamed for the loss, often by his or her own people.

competitive feelings will increase in the losing group and decrease in the winning group. ∙ If the loss can be blamed on conditions beyond the control of the group, the losing group may experience a brief period of increased cohesion. 

∙ If the group does assume responsibility for the loss, it often analyzes what happened and is better prepared for “the next time.” 

∙ In contrast, the winning group seldom does much analyzing, saying, “We did a great job! Let’s knock off for a while.” The winning group may or may not have learned anything from the experience. ∙ Thus, the great “team spirit” enjoyed by group members during the tension may drop off dramatically once the conflict is resolved. The bottom line: While stimulating conflict between groups may create a spurt of energy and effort, it leads to a winner and a loser, which may or may not help the larger system in the long run. In addition, the payoff is mixed, and on balance could create an organization which is less able to innovate, more focused on looking good rather than coming up with the most creative solution, It can also mean the system is less capable of solving complex problems which require cross-functional cooperation.

(Based in part on A..C. Filley’s book, Interpersonal Conflict Resolution.) 

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