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Moving Your Team Beyond “Us Vs. Them”

How Fred Phelps and his hateful campaigns actually spurred (good) people to come together–and what it can teach you about unifying your team.

Moving Your Team Beyond “Us Vs. Them”

On February 15, 2001, Keith Orr and Martin Contreras, co-owners of a restaurant, bar, and community gathering place frequented by many gay patrons in Ann Arbor, Michigan, learned that their business was going to be the target of an anti-gay demonstration led by Fred Phelps. This disbarred attorney turned minister was notorious for picketing the funerals of people who had died of AIDS with signs such as “God Hates Fags.”

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Rather than organizing a counterdemonstration, Orr and Contreras initiated a quick e-mail campaign, inviting people from across the community–gay identified and not gay identified–to pledge any amount they chose for each minute of Phelps’s demonstration. The longer Phelps picketed the bar, the more money was raised for a local gay advocacy group and community center. Orr and Contreras seem to have understood intuitively that to combat hate was not enough. Rather than simply protest the picketers–which probably would not have changed anyone’s attitude very much, they engaged the allophilia–or caring for the other–of local people for the gay community in their midst. Their action may even have stimulated new allophilia. Linda Lombardini, a board member of the gay community center, reported that “a father . . . brought his son into the restaurant to demonstrate to him that gay people are no different from anyone else. When he realized that we were holding a fundraiser he handed his son a ten-dollar bill to give to me.” In Orr’s words, their response to Phelps’s demonstration gave people “a constructive way to combat a destructive person.”

This was an example of leading toward. Instead of engaging the hate dimension and trying to fight it to a draw, Orr and Contreras intuitively engaged the allophilia dimension–in this case by encouraging proactive engagement and support–and built community. They focused their energies on what they wanted–a community in which difference is respected and diverse groups are actively supported–rather than on what they didn’t want, the us-against-them world of Phelps. They did not suddenly create all the goodwill on which they were able to draw (although they may have helped to create it over the years), they mobilized it. They gave a latent attitude a specific mission. As a result, that attitude became action. Leaders who give people a way to act on a positive attitude can thus reinforce the attitude itself, as people experience the fact that it is real, that it works, that it feels good to be this way.

Even so, the trade-off can be surprisingly hard to avoid. Some of the very things that can help a leader promote strong cohesion in his or her own group can also exacerbate conflicts with other groups unless the leader pays careful attention to avoiding this possibility. It is no accident that revving up a team effort is often called “rallying the troops”–and in the end, what are troops for but to fight?

Avoiding the Ingroup/Outgroup Trade-Off

One of the least spectacular but most effective bold steps any leader can take toward better us-and-them relations is simply to avoid making the traditional trade-off of “us against them.”

A practical way for leaders to avoid the ingroup/outgroup leadership trade-off is suggested by the accountability networks that can be so helpful for people doing battle with frustrating or self-destructive habits and addictions. Leaders should make specific commitments to specific parties to do specific things that promote allophilia. For example, a leader can publicly commit to meet regularly with members of the “other” group or to appoint members of the “other” group to decisionmaking bodies. A CEO should commit himself or herself to really learning about conditions to which employees object and demonstrating that he or she has done so by meeting with employee representatives and showing that knowledge, even if he or she doesn’t agree with their requests or demands.

Leaders may also be able to use the phenomenon known as positive interdependence, which occurs when a group can succeed in its joint task only if its members succeed individually. Agreements founded on positive interdependence are likely to be more useful and longer lasting.

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Business teams can have positive interdependence, and business leaders should take advantage of that to build positive us-and-them relations. In many organizations, for example, the IT function is seen by everyone else as an “other,” owing both to its specialized skills and to the fact that it seems independent of whatever business the company is in. Some companies, however, are careful to involve IT personnel in various sales, marketing, and even manufacturing activities, so that the IT people gain a better sense of the business on which their jobs depend and other employees gain a better sense of how IT can help them do their own jobs. To make this work, the leader needs to make sure team members fully understand their collective purpose and not only their own roles. The leader also needs to explicitly recognize and reward successful teamwork, specifically as it happens.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Adapted from Us + Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference. Copyright 2012 Todd L. Pittinsky.

[Image: Flickr user D Sharon Pruitt]

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