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Us vs Them redux

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Hidden in an article about a recent mass shooting was the following datum, which has more relevance to your responsibilities as a business leader than you might think:

“Far-right radicalism is the nation’s top domestic threat, according to the FBI, particularly in the category known as RMVE, racially motivated violent extremism, the agency’s catchall term for white supremacist and neo-Nazi militants.” (“3 shot dead in hate crime in Florida,” John Raoux, Terry Spencer, and Trisha Ahmed, 8/27/2023, Associated Press.)

The relevance?

I’m certainly not challenging the FBI’s tabulations on this front. The FBI has both more data and more expertise on the subject than I do.

But I think a deeper root cause analysis might be in order, because tossing aside a few more shovels full of dirt would, I think, reveal that far-right radicalism is the consequence of an even more pernicious neurological ailment – one we’re all vulnerable to if we aren’t wary, namely, the deep-seated need to despise and feel superior to some identifiable group of people.

And it isn’t just some identifiable group of people either. It’s always the same identifiable group: “Them.” As I’ve pointed out before, “we” are the source of all that’s good and right with the world: We’re smart, we’re strong, we’re virtuous. We demonstrate excellent personal hygiene, and we’re snappy dressers, too. That’s in contrast to “them.” They’re ignorant, stupid, and too ignorant to know the difference between ignorance and stupidity. Their morals are unsavory, they smell bad, and their mothers dress them funny.

I’ve made this point before, but perhaps not often enough.

The connection to your leadership?

Once upon a time I presented the five primary motivators – useful to marketers, just as useful to business leaders with some minor tweaks: (1) need for approval; (2) fear; (3) exclusivity; (4) greed; and (5) guilt.

Focus your attention on exclusivity (“A dangerous way to motivate,” 10/27/1997). It caters to the desire most people have to be unique and to matter. Remember the recruiting ad the Marines used to excellent effect? It was “The few, the proud, the Marines!”

Join the Marines and you became part of a rarified, special, exclusive group. This was highly motivating to your average Marine (yes, I know, there’s no such thing as an “average” Marine), but won no friends among the Army’s troops.

It’s a dangerous way to motivate business employees because it’s divisive, encouraging employees to treat rival organizational silos with disdain and without cooperation or collaboration.

Which takes us back to our national culture and your role as a business leader in helping to shape it: Whenever a business leader encourages employees to divide the organization into rival silos, that leader encourages employees to divide other aspects of their world into “us” and “them” too.

Bob’s last word: Faced with news of yet another mass shooting it’s easy to feel powerless.

But as a business leader there is something you can do: Whenever you hear an employee grousing about “them” and how awful “they” are, challenge them. It doesn’t matter whether “they” are HR bureaucrats, Accounting’s bean counters, IT’s propeller-heads, or management’s empty suits.

If you can help those you lead jettison the us vs them mental habit you’ll have helped.

Because while I ain’t no expert, I’m pretty sure mass shooters are less likely to aim at those they think of as “us” than they are to fire at “them.”

Bob’s sales pitch: You might have noticed the links to past KJRs. In round numbers the KJR archives contain about 1,400 entries, which means if you’re looking for a commentary on a subject that interests you, there’s a pretty good chance I’ve written about it at least once.

I’d be delighted if you were to take advantage.

On CIO.com’s CIO Survival Guide:6 ways CIOs sabotage their IT consultant’s success.” The point? It’s up to IT’s leaders to make it possible for the consultants they engage to succeed. If they weren’t serious about the project, why did they sign the contract?

Comments (5)

  • Thanks for sharing some of your thinking on the roots of divisiveness in the organization and the country.

    In addition to the 5 motivators you named, I would add 2 covert motivators: shame, the feeling of exposure in not meeting a community standard; and envy.

    Shame, l understand; envy, not so much.

    If we’re all on the same team, how can the zero-sum game of envy be a rational strategy? Is it tribalism at the one-on-one level?

  • ‘Us and them’ is a tragic flaw in human nature. And we are nothing short of ingenious at inventing divisions. A friend once commented that in WWII, the war in eastern Europe/Soviet Union was “a bunch of white people fighting.” Of course we know not everyone saw it that way.

    I appreciate the call for management (and really all of us) to downplay this tendency.

    I am going to miss your newsletter. One that I make sure I read every week.

    At the risk of being an Idea Guy, would you consider putting the newsletters in a share where we could download everything (a data dump)? For a fee, of course.

    Thanks for all the insights over the years. I quote you to people and they think I am smart.

    • I wonder what your friend made of the war in the Pacific?

      As for putting the newsletters in a downloadable share, right now the closest to this I’m planning to go is to keep the Archives on-line for awhile after my final column. They’re searchable … and I don’t charge for accessing them, so that should help.

      Thanks much for the lovely compliment.

  • Exactly the kind of concise insight I’ve enjoyed so many years and I will miss!

    And given the persistence of ‘us’ v ‘them’ thinking from time immemorial we aren’t going to see the end of it, however, as you suggest, we might make a difference in a few lives if we can tamp it down when we see it.

  • A fabulous article; but then, so are most of your articles. And I know that we all appreciate your thoughts and insights. I am sure that they did not understand the point of your article. That’s why we are better than they. (I could use some help with the snappy dressing part.)

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