In-groups and out-groups are an everyday workplace phenomenon. And, probably, an every team phenomenon. Whether we like to admit it or not, each and every one of us has in-groups. Those we gravitate to, perhaps because we have shared experiences or similar interests – or maybe because we have similar attitudes or working styles. Our group instincts can be triggered in seconds by something as simple as accent or tone of voice. And where in-groups exist, so do out-groups.
Why are we wired to form groups? Put simply, this is about safety, belonging and self. As Psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne puts it “The virtual fences we build keep the outsiders away and allow us to go on with our daily lives feeling protected and secure.” Our brains are wired to associate “like me”, in whichever form that takes, with a sense of safety.
This isn’t just about who we make small talk with at the water-cooler. Numerous studies show that we give favourable treatment to those in our in-group. While we maximise our social identity by treating out-group members unfavourably. At work, group dynamics influence access to opportunity, feedback, progression and pay. For any DEI practitioners looking to develop outcomes focused strategies, considering the impact of group dynamics and taking steps to foster true belonging is a crucial part of this work.
In-groups and out-groups exist in almost every workplace. But in organisations who prioritise inclusion and belonging, why do these dynamics still prevail? We have an emotional connection to the groups that we belong to. As humans, we boost our self esteem by associating with high status groups: it can feel fabulous to be “in” – to be liked, supported and included by those who hold power and influence. But we also boost our self-esteem by distancing ourselves from low status groups. And if you take a moment to step back and really think about it, that’s quite an uncomfortable home truth.
So what can we do as employers, and individuals, to address in-group and out-group dynamics in our organisation?
Be alive to situations where group dynamics may be at their peak: In hybrid-working settings, studies have shown that in-groups can quickly form among office-based workers. We also know that proximity bias can create frighteningly subjective assessments of commitment. Gartner found that 64% of managers believe office-based workers are higher performing that remote workers. And after a merger or acquisition, group dynamics often become more pronounced. A whole host of factors, from familiarity and loyalty to differences in culture and values, can contribute to “us and them” dynamics forming across legacy organisations. Studies show that trust in leaders typically decreases substantially during periods of organisational change. And if there is a dominant partner in a merger, staff on the other side of the deal may feel a strong loss of identity and find it more difficult to connect with the post-merger organisation.
Apply empathy: Almost all of us will have found ourselves in the out-group at some stage in life, whether that’s at work, at home or in our social lives. And being on the outside can hurt. It can eat away at our self-esteem, self-worth and self-confidence. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and tapping into emotional empathy – that is “how would I be feeling in their situation” - can be all it takes to compel us to take action.
Pay attention to those on the periphery: Out-group members will often be those who are not seen or heard. Those who are less involved in team dynamics, either because they have lost the confidence to interact with their peers, or because they are being excluded. As a team member or leader, consider the practical and tangible steps you can take to support those on the periphery, and to bring them into the centre of the team.
Ensure that talent decisions are objective and underpinned by evidence: Group dynamics can impact hiring, work assignment, access to feedback, promotion and pay. It’s crucial to assess the systems and processes in your organisation to identify areas where subjectivity and bias may skew access to opportunity and outcome. And take steps to remedy any issues.
Take stock of your own in-groups: While it can feel uncomfortable, stepping back and considering who falls within our own in-groups and out-groups at work is a crucial step to address exclusion in the workplace. Take a moment to consider who your go-to people are. Who is in your “advisory group”? Who do you gravitate to during meetings or interactions? And who is on the outside.
Forming a “human connection” with those who are different to us is one of the most powerful ways to overcome bias. So, take time and effort to step outside of the echo chamber and dismantle your workplace in-groups and out-groups.