Is your organization united, or does it feel like a bunch of departments thrown together?

A number of people, who didn’t know each other, were randomly assigned a green or a red badge. They were asked to sit together with people wearing the same colored badge. Then they were asked to describe their own group, as well as the other group. An impossible task, as they didn’t know each other at all. However, that didn’t stop them from describing the group they belonged too in much more favorable terms than the other group.

In another study, people were asked to describe the people living in their street as well as people living in a parallel street. Also for the people in their city as well as people living in another city, and then people in their country as well as in another country. In all three cases, people described distinct differences between ‘their’ group of people, and ‘the other’ group, describing their own group in a more positive way.

Many similar experiments have been conducted. All showing our strong bias to view our own group in a more positive light than other groups. Even when we don’t know anyone, we are strongly inclined to rate people in our group more favorably than those outside the group.

Why does this happen? Well, for one, it is a basic human need to want to belong somewhere. Another important cause: we like to view ourselves in a positive light. Therefore, unconsciously, we imagine we are part of the superior group, in order to raise our self-esteem.

Although this has a social function, there are also negative outcomes. Obvious examples are racism and discrimination. But there are many more less obvious effects, still with big impact. Look around in the workplace. Many people feel their department has its own distinct identity, which they consider to be superior to other departments. They favor colleagues in their own department. They believe the other departments are not doing as well as they do. And soon these small beliefs hinder the cooperation between departments. Confirming the already slightly negative opinion they have about each other.

For an organization to work well together, we need to address this group effect in the workplace. There are several strategies to reduce tension between departments, and let them work more effectively together. To name a few:

  • Ensure people are in contact with each other frequently. People who know each other better, realize the differences are not that big and they build sympathy for each other. Put people from different departments together, stimulate interdepartmental job moves, communicate about the different departments, create an open office space for several departments together.
  • Make people feel part of a bigger group than just their department. Develop an organization identity, to which people can relate. This reduces their identification with their own department.
  • Emphasize and stimulate interdependence, ensure departments can’t do their job without relying on others. When people need each other, they reduce their negative view of another group.

Realize that human nature prevents departments from working well together. There’s no easy solution. It needs attention. But the benefits of a smooth cooperation between all parts of an organization are worth it.

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