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Managing Us versus Managing Them

Mentally dividing others into in-groups and out-groups clearly creates a psychological basis for the arousal of powerful emotions and motives, but scientists still wonder about the origins of human beings' readiness to separate others into categories of Us and Them.

Some say that its beginnings lie in animal evolution, wherein an ability to separate others into categories of Us and Them benefits its owners by seeding both intragroup cooperation and intergroup competition. Others argue that its roots can be found in early childhood experiences, wherein the development of an individual's self-esteem might be influenced by the act of judging the attributes of one's own family group against those of other groups. And a third contingent contends that the origins of the Us versus Them inclination can be found in the feelings of reinforcement that are associated with in-group membership: the sense of safety, security, and prestige that comes with belonging produces a powerful preference for others who are either familiar or similar. Regardless of this important debate's outcome, the immediately relevant point is that work behavior is greatly affected by employees' readiness to cleave their work worlds into in-groups and out-groups. From an organization's perspective, the most critical questions to ask are "Where does this division occur?" and "Why?" If the organization is situated on the in-group side of its workers' mental division, then those employees experience a sense of identification with their employer, clearly revealed by their common reference to the organization in terms of we. However, should such a division place the organization on the far side of the boundary—away from self, on the out-group side—then its employees tend to speak of the organization as they rather than we. When companies are relegated to they, there is no feeling of worker-employer oneness, no merging of personal and organizational goals, and no vicarious experience of organizations' ups and downs. And when it comes to making decisions at work, self-interest—instead of the psychological golden rule of organizations—is the most accurate predictor of employees' behavior.

The good news is that companies can influence the boundary's location. In the abstract, the formula for successfully positioning the organization and its employees on the same side of the psychological dividing line is simple. It is a rule of reciprocity that says you get what you give: The beneficiaries of inclusion are inclined to include in return, whereas the victims of exclusion are inclined to exclude in return.

In recent years, many organizations have become aware of the danger of alienating their workers by making them victims of exclusion and have taken loud and well-publicized steps to prevent it. Such innovations as MBOs, SBUs, TQMs, T-Groups, and Theories X, Y, and Z, as well as catchwords like brainstorming, delegation, process re-engineering, one-minute managing, Kanban, organization development, empowerment, participation, and culture change create the sense that modern companies are hornets' nests of progressive and inclusive activity; but the truth is quite different. Deep and genuine change is still slow to come to organizations, despite the common misconception that such inclusion-inducing management practices are by now widespread.

The data concerning organizations' efforts to earn the allegiance of their workers is not encouraging. Recently, the U.S. Labor Department estimated that only 4 percent of U.S. businesses are involved in inclusion-inducing activities, such as genuinely empowering employees or developing a high-performance workplace.23 Professor Edward Lawler, from the business school of the University of Southern California, reports that in a survey of the companies comprising Fortune magazine's Fortune 1000 that was conducted by the University's Center for Effective Organizations, 68 percent of the firms claimed they used self-managed teams. However, any euphoria aroused by this apparently high percentage must be subdued by additional evidence showing that such teams included a mere 10 percent of the companies' workers.24 The reason for such a discrepancy between the reported popularity of inclusion-inducing approaches and their actual dissemination among companies and employees can be found in the results of a study by Boston-based consulting group Rath and Strong. In this research, 80 percent of the managers surveyed asserted that employees should have a voice in facilitating corporate change; yet when asked about their own employees, 40 percent of the same managers said they did not believe that the people who worked for them had anything valuable to contribute. Based on the judgments of these bosses about their subordinates, we can imagine how many fewer than 80 percent of them really ask for their subordinates' input when, instead of responding to a survey's questions about hypothetical conditions, they are actually on the job with the power to allow or disallow subordinate input.

Surveys of employees' views about their influence and involvement at work also support the conclusion that organizations' public pronouncements boasting of their inclusion-inducing approaches have exaggerated the frequency and effectiveness of such practices. In 1997, an annual survey of 3,300 employees conducted by Towers Perrin showed an alarming increase in both employees' feelings of disenfranchisement and the number of workers—approximately one-third—who claimed that their bosses ignored their interests when making decisions.25 Similar findings come from a nationwide poll done by Princeton Research Associates in which nearly two-thirds of U.S. workers reported that their superiors could not be trusted to keep their promises.26 Even at more senior levels, workers' feelings of personal influence and involvement appear to be eroding. For example, a survey of 196 executives of "40-something" age found that more than half of these senior-ranking workers felt less committed to their employers than they had five years earlier.27 The error of overestimating the presence of inclusion-inducing company practices is compounded by a second error: the myth that the executives in charge are regular and sincere users of these tactics. Even in the rare instances where such inclusive approaches have permeated employees' ranks, the programs' value is often nullified by the ulterior motives of their implementers. In companies these days, there is a lot of faux fellowship. Organizations' bosses try to appear caring in order to disguise a set of ulterior motives. Michael Hammer—a pioneer, along with James Champy, of the concept of "re-engineering" as a strategy for corporate change—acknowledged the pervasiveness of such fraud when he said: "The biggest lie told by most corporations, and they tell it proudly, is that 'people are our most important assets.' Total fabrication. They treat people like raw material."28 In-group members' vicarious experience of each other's plight serves to inhibit exploitative behavior in their dealings with one another. That is the golden rule of organizations' core message. On the other hand, a lack of such mutual allegiance inspires the opposite behavior. When employees conclude that bosses are treating them exploitatively, they feel excluded and exclude in return, shoving the organization icon away from themselves, deeper into out-group territory. The resulting separation squelches the development of employees' organizational identity, and opens up the possibility of treating the company the way its representatives treated them: as raw material, "things" to be exploited. It is the beginning of a downward spiral in which each exclusionary act by one group is paid back in kind by the other group, effectively separating the two further and further.

We would all like to be invited to be included, but we are not invariably blinded by that desire. When invitations are fraudulent, we quickly understand where to place our in-group/out-group boundary. Few of us are repeatedly duped when bosses unfurl the banner of inclusion and say, "Let's march together," only to show, through their later behavior, that they were silently adding, "Just keep your place—10 paces behind." Those in charge lose all credibility when, having declared "We're all in this together," they proceed—without prior warning and despite denials to the contrary—to dismiss 10, 20, or 30 percent of their workforce while granting themselves options with repricing privileges, special gross-ups, health plans with exclusive perks, and salaries plus bonuses that are more than 200 times greater than the average income of their employees. Yet it is important to recognize, however ironically, that these self-serving and duplicitous employers are actually demonstrating their keen understanding of a crucial cause of employees' organizational identity: that employers' motives affect the success of inclusion-inducing approaches. Their hope is that by pretending that their primary motive is attention to workers, they will fool employees into feeling included, embracing the organizations' goals as their own, and striving to achieve them.

Beyond this group of self-serving glad-handers is another batch of corporate authorities who dispense with the all-for-one pretense altogether. These bosses simply order the use of inclusion-inducing management technology regardless of the response by employees to the obvious lack of caring that accompanies it. Installed by dictate, company innovations that might actually have successfully unified bosses and workers not only fail to build such ties, but frequently break them. This is the third error made by those who believe that organizations are making extensive use of inclusion-inducing approaches: They overlook the crucial link between the content of these approaches and the process of their introduction into the workplace. Any sensible assessment of the impact of these innovations on organizations must begin by asking how their installation occurred, not simply whether they've appeared.

The manner in which new management methods are introduced determines their significance to the workforce. "You will be democratic" is a mildly funny joke, as audiences instantly recognize the inconsistency of the dictatorial command and the stated aim. Less funny, if similar, are organizations that introduce inclusive work programs in exclusionary ways—for example, through autocratic mandate—thus making employees pawns rather than participants in the process of change. What is unfortunately forgotten is that the programs' effectiveness rests on the how as well as the what. There is no top-down decision, however potentially beneficial, that cannot be undermined by uncommitted employees.

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