“Us” versus “Them”: How Cultural Norms Undermine Change

By Stu Cohen on May 2, 2016

After more than two decades of leading and consulting on large-scale organizational change initiatives, it never ceases to amaze me how seemingly innocuous cultural norms can lead to lack of buy-in and even outright resistance to change.

Recently, I was facilitating a workshop on Leading Organizational Transitions when the issue of trust or, more specifically, lack of trust in leadership came up. It’s particularly disconcerting to me how often this topic gets raised, especially given that trust is at the foundation of any family, team (business or otherwise) and organization’s success. And, in this particular case, it was more than the typical concerns around leadership’s inability to create and articulate a compelling vision and effectively address the why behind the change. It was a fundamental underlying cultural “norm” that I have heard all too often: the us versus them mentality, or said differently—people versus leadership.

The way that this manifested reminded me that behind all humor, there is an element of truth. One of the workshop participants from a large hospital corporation ignited the discussion by sharing that during a recent visit to a hospital facility, one of the hospital associates asked her if she was a “scrub” or a “suit.”

Initially, when she brought this up during the workshop, there was laughter in the room. However, after a few seconds, the conversation quickly turned to one of concern and curiosity. How could such seemingly innocent, yet divisive terms have become part of the daily lexicon of her organization?

Looking beyond the obvious, what does this mean? How does an apparently successful organization in an industry that has experienced monumental transformational change over the past decade have such an us versus them culture?

You might be surprised to learn that this type of culture is actually more pervasive than you think. I was recently on a trip to the West Coast when a flight attendant who had just appropriately handled a very rude passenger looked at me and said: “If you think it’s bad being a passenger, try working for this airline.” I smiled politely and wondered what could have possibly made her feel this way. Not more than 30 seconds later, a video featuring the CEO came on the overhead monitors. He talked about the company’s dedication to making this flight a special experience for everyone on board. Ironic, especially given the interaction that I had only moments before.

Were these two examples random stories or does this phenomenon exist even more broadly than we think?

My interaction on that flight reminded me of a successful large-scale organizational change engagement that I had the privilege of working on with a major global manufacturing organization. While doing interviews with employees at the start of the project, one of them mentioned that there was a rift between “carpet” and “concrete.” When I pressed this person to tell me more, he explained further. Essentially, there was an invisible wall between two parts of the same building—and management (“carpet”) versus manufacturing (“concrete”) had become commonplace in the company culture to the point where there was an annual “carpet” versus “concrete” company softball game and barbecue.

Is this type of behavior humorous or toxic?

At first blush, it might seem like just insider or family talk. But how can a family or an organization of five, 5,000 or 500,000 possibly thrive with such a divide?

Does your organization have an “us” versus “them” culture? If you aren’t sure, start by talking with the members of your team. Ask questions and demonstrate appreciative inquiry to get a better understanding of what your people think, feel and say. Only then can you begin to understand and address the cultural norms and behaviors that may be impacting your ability to effectively drive change and move your organization forward to a better future.

Posted in Blog, Change & Transition, Leadership Development Tagged with:

About Stu Cohen

Stu Cohen is Vice President, Strategic Change Advisory Services and Principal Consultant at Linkage. He is a skilled consultant and facilitator who specializes in change and transition leadership, executive coaching, and leadership development. He has over 25 years of experience working as an internal and external consultant with Fortune 100 organizations. Stu is a seasoned executive coach who is experienced in the design and implementation of leadership development initiatives.
4 comments on ““Us” versus “Them”: How Cultural Norms Undermine Change
  1. Katie Sweeney says:

    Thanks Stu,

    A very timely and needed blog.

    • Sarah Breigle says:

      Dear Katie,
      Thank you for reading our blog and for taking the time to write-in. We’re glad that Stu’s post resonated with you.
      Warm Regards,
      Sarah Breigle

  2. Darrell Davis says:

    During my 25 year career in the military, I witnessed these types of behaviors on several occasions. Officers in the military change positions every 2-3 years. There is an Army culture at the strategic level but there is also an organizational culture at the tactical level. As a Senior NCO, I was constantly working to bring to the “troops” the message that we have to work to insure ALL of our members were successful in order for the organization to be successful. If leaders at the strategic level don’t trust the leaders at the tactical level the leaders at the strategic level develop courses of action around this lack of trust. In order to reduce this, the tactical operators must work to strengthen their leaders in order to move the organization in the right direction.
    I also witnessed this in the public sector and as an LD/OD consultant worked hard to bring this understanding to my clients.
    Thanks for you time.

    • Stu Cohen says:

      Thank you so much for your comments on my post. I too, have witnessed these behaviors frequently in my work. What I find so interesting about your comment is the fact that these behaviors also are found frequently in the military. While I have no first hand experience with the military, I have found this “Us vs. Them” mentality knows no bounds in both the public and private sectors. I have found it particularly pervasive in the NGOs I have worked with, which on the one hand was surprising, yet on the other hand not surprising at all.

      I wish all organizations had more leaders like you who understand that in order for any organization to be successful, we must create the environment where all our people can and WANT to do their best everyday.
      Thank you again for your reply. Please feel free to reach out at any time to discuss further or share you thoughts and experiences.


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