Like it or not, there is certainly an Us and Them in your organization. Indeed, there are many, as employees identify with different divisions, locations, and teams. Human beings desperately seek group affiliations and have evolved to quickly identify who’s in our group and who isn’t. Even infants do it.
The reason we developed this deeply-ingrained tendency most likely started with genetics. The forces of group-level natural selection led to prosocial behaviors within a group and competition between groups. That helped related members pass on their genes. But now it goes way beyond that.
The Trolley Experiments
A classic thought experiment used in ethics can tell us a lot about our innate tribalism and how the brain works. It’s called “The Trolley Problem.”
“You see a runaway trolley moving toward five tied-up (or otherwise incapacitated) people lying on the tracks. You are standing next to a level that controls a switch. If you pull the lever, the trolley will be redirected onto a side track and the five people on the main track will be saved. However, there is a single person lying on the side track. You have two choices:
1. Do nothing and also the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.”
In Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Prof. Richard Sapolsky describes experiments involving variations of this problem. What if one of the people were related to you? Or were of the same ethnicity? Or wore the jersey of your favorite team?
Would that affect your choice? Of course it would. “According to one astonishing survey, 46% of women would save their own dog rather than a foreign tourist if both were menaced by a runaway bus. The evolutionary explanation is that they feel more ‘kinship’ with the dog.”
The part of you that decides
In another version of this experiment, instead of pulling a lever, you have to push a person onto the tracks to save the other five. Experimenters gave subjects both versions while neuro-imaging their brains. They found that those pushing a person activated “emotion-related regions that respond to aversive stimuli.” Those pulling a lever did not activate those regions. For them, it was “as purely cerebral a decision as choosing which wrench to use to fix a widget.”
Remove the human element from mistreating someone, and it literally changes how you think about it.
What to do?
Sapolsky offered no easy answers. Human behavior is complicated, the research is often contradictory, and the best you can do is point to rough probabilities.
“From massive, breathtaking barbarity to countless pinpricks of microaggression, Us versus Them has produced oceans of pain. Yet our generic goal is not to cure us of Us/Them dichotomizing. It can’t be done…"
Instead, in the final pages he had advice for how to at least mitigate our ingrained tribal tendencies and tap into more prosocial behaviors. “Focus on the larger shared, goals. Practice perspective taking. Individuate, individuate, individuate.” Seeing the other person as someone you can relate to engages other parts of your brain, allowing you to feel empathy and compassion.
Perhaps you have two divisions that don’t get along, or the merger of two organizations still hasn’t resulted in one culture, or there’s friction between headquarters and the branch locations. Consider purposefully forming WOL Circles with people from the different groups. Over the twelve weeks, they’ll relate to each other as individuals who have much in common, and those human connections can serve as bridges between the groups.
When you go beyond the labels and categories, go beyond “Them,” it can change everything.