Us versus Them in Company Culture

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright March 2016


Us versus Them thinking is powerful instinctive thinking that developed during the Stone Age when mankind was living for thousands of generations in small, semi-nomadic villages. (I call this the Neolithic Village lifestyle.) In these Stone Age conditions human communities were small, and their equally small neighbors could both cooperate and betray -- they could trade goods and steal women.

The thinking instinct that developed in response to this was "Us versus Them" thinking -- we of the village are different from strangers. We can be trusted more, while those strangers around us can't be trusted very much, and betraying them is OK, too.

We have progressed a long way from the Neolithic Village lifestyle, but the instinctive thinking patterns developed to make life go smoother in that environment are still with us, and it is often surprising how they express themselves in our modern environments.

One environment that expresses strong Us versus Them thinking is contemporary business cultures.

The topic for this essay, Us versus Them thinking in business cultures, was inspired by reading the 15 Mar 16 issue of Fortune magazine about "The 100 Best Companies to Work For". The underlying theme of this issue turned out to be how much difference the company cultures made in how much employees enjoyed working for the company.

A light bulb turned on inside my head.

What is company culture

The articles in the Fortune issue described many different perks and benefits in many different companies. As I was reading a new insight came to mind, "What all these perks and benefits are about is making the company's lifestyle distinctive, and distinctively better, than those of companies around the one being described."

This was followed by the thought, "Hmm... This is describing an 'Us' environment. We of the company are 'Us'. We do things in a neat a special way. Everyone else is 'Them'."

And this was followed by further thinking about the theme of "company lifestyle", and then realizing that what was being described in Fortune was only the tip of the "Us" iceberg in company environments.

Obvious manifestations of "Us"

Here are some other manifestations of Us thinking and activity in company environments:

o The various perks a company offers employees are tangible demonstrations of being "Us" and its value to members.

o The elaborate security procedures that happen inside many companies are tangible demonstrations of how important being "Us" is if you're going to be inside the company building and grounds.

o The pep talks and moral-boosting meetings are all about building "Us" thinking and making it feel desirable.

Surprise manifestations of "Us"

Beyond the obvious manifestations of "Us" come the surprising ones -- the "Oh, that is a manifestation too?" variants:

o The elaborate rituals it takes to get into a job -- This has been a mystery to me for a while. In my opinion getting into and out of a job should be more like getting groceries and less like getting married. This insight into the importance of being "Us" explains why the elaborateness happens. This also explains the emphasis on being a team player -- "You're going to be part of 'Us'."

o Likewise, the elaborateness of laying off employees comes from the root emotions linked with casting people out of an "Us" environment. Emotionally, laying off people is like exiling them. It is not easy to have happen, or to watch happening.

"Us" is not always easy

A company can become a big place, and this strains the "Us" instinct. The "Us" instinct was designed for a small village environment. This means there are situations where "Us" thinking is not going to be in harmony with the company's big aspirations. Here are some examples:

o Empire building within a company. This is creating a smaller "Us" inside the big company "Us". If the empire's goals lead to productive innovation for the company, this is working out well. The dark side is when the company's goals are sacrificed to the empire's goals.

o Is the customer "Us" or "Them"? When the customer becomes "Them" and can be dumped upon, the business reputation suffers, and the business' fortune is likely to follow unless there are significant barriers to entry that are keeping competitors at bay.

o When "Us" thinking supports complacency it is doing damage. A common time this happens is when a company grows and thrives enough that it moves into its own building. This is a time when further growth can falter because complacency grows strong. The, "Yeah! We've made it!" warm and fuzzy "Us" feeling gets in the way of further disruptive growth.


Us versus Them thinking is a strong part of business culture. The contemporary expansion of innovative perks as described in the Fortune issue is a way of strengthening "Us" feelings. This is good for morale but it must be used cautiously. If "Us" thinking about the company gets too strong, and customers and suppliers start becoming "Them's" who can be dumped upon, or "Us" feelings start making the company culture a complacent one, then the company future fortunes will suffer.



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