In the workplace, we tend to divide ourselves into groups. There’s “Us,” and there’s “Them.” Our desire to categorize people into groups and stereotype them, racially, generationally or otherwise, runs deep at work. We can learn a lot here by looking to Jane Elliott, a diversity pioneer.
In 1968, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Elliott, then a third-grade teacher, felt compelled to try to make sense of the tragedy for her classroom of white students in Riceville, Iowa. She divided her kids into two groups based on their eye color. She used broad stereotypes to declare that the one eye-color group was better and smarter, and the other eye-color group was slower and untrustworthy. It was a way of teaching white children what it is like to experience a form of prejudice.
Filmed accounts of her experiment, recorded in 1970 by ABC News and in a subsequent PBS special, (click on PBS to view video) have since been viewed by millions of college students and diversity-training attendees.
Now an internationally recognized diversity consultant, Jane Elliott continues to do the very heavy and necessary lifting on institutionalized racial prejudice. I share her work in courses on unconscious bias to introduce the power of stereotyping and the pervasiveness of organizational “in and out groups.” Every organization I visit quickly relates to Elliott’s tactics.
No matter what a person’s racial identity or experience with racism, Elliott’s experiment highlights the pervasive “Us vs. Them” mentality at work in our own organizations: It may not appear as a racial Us vs. Them – it could be Us vs. Finance or Human Resources, Us vs. Headquarters, Boomers vs. Millennials, and the list goes on.
Human nature might lead us to want to be in the “in” group, but if making someone else the “out group” is necessary for that to happen, then we’re contributing to organizational tension and counter-productivity. We’re a part of the problem, not part of the solution. When you hear team members putting down other parts of the organization, consider role modeling the behaviors we would all like to see.
Our colleagues in other parts of the business or colleagues who aren’t exactly like us based on age, tenure, seniority, family status all have one thing in common. They are our colleagues. We are all the “us!” It’s only our competition, in business, that is the “them.”
Monitoring your own attitudes, language and behavior in this regard can have a big impact in your team.
So the next time you hear yourself stereotyping another group, consider how prejudice impacts your productivity and morale. Making any other group a “them” or “other”, although a naturally human mental process, is almost always counter productive. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wisely told us, “”We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” Here’s to us all rowing in the same direction…or at least trying.