“The only competition worthy of a wise man is with himself.”
“By dividing the people we can get them to expend their energies in fighting over questions of no importance to us except as teachers of the common herd.”
The Civil Servants’ Year Book, “The Organizer” January 1934
Ok. This is about the fallacy of the “us versus them” narrative. One of the first temptations in business differentiation is the ‘us versus them’ narrative. Not only is it a natural instinct to identify an enemy <them> to compete against it also naturally generates a competitive spirit as well as survival spirit.
It is incredibly tempting, but incredibly wrong.
Frankly, it is what lazy business leaders and strategists do.
And, in their laziness, they create what is more often than not a false narrative <how can they be the enemy if you hire some of them?>, but it also falls apart as you realize that ‘the enemy’ often has the same intentions you do and often has some aspects of business product, organization, thinking … that you actually like.
That is the failing of an ‘us versus them’ narrative.
Well. That is one failing. The ‘us versus them’ narrative is strewn with not only failings, but danger in the larger scheme of things.
Often it is rooted in some ‘conspiracy theme’ within ‘them.’ Them always seem to have a nefarious intent to rule the world, or crush our thinking, or take something away from us or … well … basically undermine all that is good & right about the world “us” sees as what is good & right <and ‘common sense’ to ‘us’>. This theme can tear your business culture apart through paranoia as well as wasted energy constantly defining ‘what is good & right’ <because those damn “thems” keep trying to show us it isn’t good & right>.
Let me suggest several things with regard to the underpinnings of ‘us versus them.’
– Common sense is relative to perspective.
Contrary to popular opinion much of common sense is not universal <therefore less than common>. My main proof point for that is easily the United Nations Human Bill of Rights. One would think there are some common sense beliefs that underline all human behavior, well, at least until you try and gather all the countries in the world and get them to agree to them.
People are no different.
Common sense advocates typically suggest what I call “headline beliefs” of which almost all of us quite easily grasp and nod our head to. It is when we get to the story outlining the hows & whats where everyone starts losing their minds. An ‘us versus them’ narrative in the hands of a charismatic leader can dwell in the headlines. Unfortunately, there is such a thing as ‘day to day behavior’ which needs laws & rules & guidelines in order to establish a relatively fair game in this thing called Life. Businesses are exactly the same.
Here is what I am saying.
In discussing a headline common sense thought 90% of people are all in lock step.
In discussing the details under the headline common sense thought 90% of people are all in slightly different places.
That, alone, is one of the key reasons most reasonable business leaders avoid an ‘us versus them’ narrative.
– Conspiracies may exist but they most typically are within the purview of the few and not the many.
What this means is that there may possibly a small group of people scheming something up, but they remain few because <mainly> the many have no palette for what that few have to offer. In addition the ‘few’ scheming rarely are powerful people.
Yup. Despite what conspiracy theorists posit about cabals of powerful people somehow guiding the globe on its axis, most powerful people who would have an inclination to involve themselves in some nefarious scheming like this would have no desire to collaborate <they are typically of dictator mentality>.
In addition to the non-collaboration aspect the majority of powerful people have less interest in running the world, they are more focused on defending their own empire <and ego>. That is exactly what happens in business.
These people may truly be ‘them’ to ‘us’, but they are not our enemy — they are simply more likely to be indifferent to ‘us.’ It is difficult to invest in an us versus them narrative when ‘them’ doesn’t even care. Most businesses avoid “us versus them” because they have enough trouble maintaining integrity within an organization to have to bring in the whole concept of “thems” manipulating anything.
– Complexity not simplicity.
I could invest page after page outlining how complexity destroys the oversimplified ‘us versus them’ narrative, but I will focus on one aspect – people can rarely be easily bucketed into simplistic character, attitude & behavior descriptions.
Not all accountants are boring or socially inept.
Not all conservatives are against abortions.
Not all liberals are socialists.
Not all religious people are close minded.
Not all French people like wine.
Not all Hawaiians know how to surf.
In business, and sports, you learn this quickly <it seems like politics hasn’t received this memo yet>.
You meet ‘them’ and, uh oh, you not only find you kind of like them, but more often than not <yikes!>, they believe some of the same things you do. The ‘us versus them” narrative can only exist in an environment where oversimplification has a chance to live. Business is anything but simple. So while a crappy, or lazy, leader may find some initial success rallying the organizational troops with an “us versus them” narrative it all falls part pretty quickly.
That is why business people avoid the ‘us versus them’ narrative.
Anyway. I read somewhere that if you truly want to defend liberty, the first thing you should do is defend the liberty of people you like the least. But instead, in today’s world, we seem to be spending more time focused on defending the liberty of “me”, and what “me believes” first. Even businesses struggle with this <under the guise of “building a strong culture”>.
Let’s be clear. Leaders — of companies, of organizations, of countries, of any rather difficult to manage and align group of people — realize that if they intend to make something happen that it just needs to be done <sometimes> acting in the best interest of ALL who they lead and do it without discussion because discussion slows the process down.
Is this a conspiracy? Nope.
This is leading. Sometimes you get it right <and good things happen and you never explain all the decision you made without inviting opinions of others> and sometimes you get it wrong <and bad things happen and you (a) keep your mouth shut and just hope the problem goes away or (b) end up explaining every decision minutiae in extraordinary excruciating public discourse>.
I am not suggesting there are not better ways to communicating and aligning an organization than simply ‘doing & telling later’, nor am I suggesting transparency isn’t important in terms of uniting, but I am suggesting that in business sometimes a leader makes a decision because it has to be made, and it is made with the best intentions for “all” and not with bad intent for “us” and a better intent for “them.”
And maybe this is where businesses have truly learned to avoid the ‘us versus them’ narrative.
If you plant the narrative and constantly water it into a healthy belief system within a business, it can then very very quickly become an unhealthy integral part of an organizational DNA viewpoint. Side to side <department to department> as well as down to up <workers – perceived doers/non intellectuals – to management – perceived non-doers/intellectuals>.
Lastly. Here is what the good business leaders have learned as to the most insidious organizational aspect in an ‘us versus them’ narrative:
… take care of their own <the ‘us’> even to the detriment of the “all”
By the way. Crappy leaders love this because it absolves them of responsibility and they can always point to external ‘them’ as the reason why ‘us’ isn’t getting what they believe they deserve.
Regardless. The narrative permits ‘their own’ to be constant victims of whatever ‘them forces’ that are constantly scheming to impede or crush the ‘us’ personal ambitions.
In a complex, changing world, it is tempting to reduce multifaceted issues to the us-and-them narrative.
The narrative eliminates any context thru oversimplification. Interestingly, the oversimplification actually creates conspiracies/conspiracy speculation and enhances fears by suggesting the complexity doesn’t exist <and people know in their heads there has to be more and create the ‘more’ all on their own>. This, in turn, permits everyone to skip facts and go immediately to emotion from which point “we the people” <whoever ‘we’ is> resides on one side and “the system” or “some idiot who cannot do the right thing” or “a cabal of dishonest untrustworthy thems” on the other. This narrative is particularly tempting to the weak leader these days because general mistrust of everything is at an all time high.
The charismatic crappy leader suggests that the business <the ‘us’ in the equation> has a plan, a good plan, a plan that really will not work only if the ‘thems’ work their mysterious wiles. Trust therefore resides with ‘us’ and mistrust resides with ‘them.’
The us versus them narrative is seductive. Aspects of it sound great, frankly, to any and all of us. That’s why it is so compelling if you are not careful. But the world, and business, is more complex than ‘us versus them.’ A good leader, a leader who understands you are seeking success in the moment, today, tomorrow and next month/year/decade will weigh the true costs, and effects, of investing in the us versus them narrative beyond simply winning.
Ponder. And listen closely to the charismatic jesters who lean in on “use versus them” rhetoric.
“Too many people are only willing to defend rights that are personally important to them. It’s selfish ignorance, and it’s exactly why totalitarian governments are able to get away with trampling on people.
Freedom does not mean freedom just for the things I think I should be able to do. Freedom is for all of us. If people will not speak up for other people’s rights, there will come a day when they will lose their own.”