Us Versus Them: Effects of Group Dynamics on Leadership
By M. Bret Hood, M.B.A.
In a jury room ready to deliberate the guilt or innocence of a person charged with a violent crime, a woman is convinced beyond a reasonable doubt of the alleged perpetrator’s guilt based on the evidence. She is eager to find resolution in this matter because she already has depleted her vacation leave and wants to ensure that she gets paid for her absence from work.
Another jury member, an older gentleman, takes the lead and calls for an open vote to see where the others stand. The vote results in an 11 to 1 count for a guilty verdict, with him as the only holdout. When asked to explain why he voted not guilty, the man states that he thinks the perpetrator may be guilty, but he feels the group should spend more time deliberating the facts of the case before sending the individual to prison. As the hours go on, the gentleman continues to assert his not guilty verdict, despite a number of jurors providing persuasive arguments for a guilty vote. It appears that deliberations will last for at least another week before the judge will declare a hung jury. How does the woman feel, and who will bear the brunt of her frustration?
In-Groups and Out-Groups
Similar situations arise when FBI leadership students analyze a fact pattern from a fictitious criminal case and try to reach a unanimous decision. In the many times students have done this exercise, no class has reached unanimity within the allotted 2-hour time frame, despite the incentive to leave class early if they can reach such a decision.
A number of interesting behaviors arise from this exercise; most notably, close friends and colleagues quickly devolve into the “us-versus-them” group mentality, resulting in psychological conflict caused by the cognitive dissonance.1 From the onset when they try to make a decision about guilt or innocence, two distinct groups form. One votes the alleged perpetrator guilty and the other not guilty.
A predictable behavioral dynamic follows. Those in the majority quickly establish their social identity as the “in-group” (us). Those opposed are branded with a negative social identity and “out-group” status (them) because they disagree with the majority.
Supervisory Special Agent Hood is an instructor in the Leadership and Communications Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.
Normally the in-group, because of the power advantage of sheer numbers, initiates a cordial discussion with out-group members under the guise of attempting to understand their perspective. In the beginning, arguments usually remain logical and civil, but in as little as five minutes, the entire group begins to devolve.
Harsh personal attacks and visible and condemning nonverbal behaviors, as well as heightened emotional tension, quickly overrule collegial decorum. Colleagues who genuinely liked one another before the exercise openly use snide and derogatory remarks when referring to each other. Loud gasps and sighs result when minority group members present their perspectives.
The factual basis—valid or invalid—of any argument becomes inconsequential and easily discarded by majority-group members. Often, majority members interrupt the minority group as its members try to explain their position. A slow building of intense pressure on the minority group members to comply with the majority opinion follows.
While this debate about guilt or innocence ensues, psychological pressures increase as students identify new in-groups and out-groups that conflict with previously accepted groupings. Prior to this exercise students defined their in-group as primarily all-inclusive given the considerable amount of bonding generated by shared living and experiences. “From the social identity perspective, a group exists psychologically when people share a self-conception in terms of the defining features of a self-inclusive social category.”2 In this exercise the students choose between conflicting social identities involving people they considered in-group members in any other context. The stress caused by the mental confliction manifests in the described negative social behaviors.
Issues in Policing
Sometimes police agencies face similar dilemmas. A primary social identity is to serve and protect the public. However, another social identity—a strong belief that officers protect their own—forms the moment a recruit first joins the police culture. This second identity occurs naturally given that law enforcement personnel frequently face dangerous situations and rely on each other for survival.
Both social identities are cultivated during an officer’s tenure. Throughout law enforcement officers’ careers, these two identities normally coincide with intrinsic and extrinsic goals. However, at times the two social identities conflict. In these trying times an officer must make a choice. This choice can be conscious, but often is unconscious and framed by long-established social bonds.
An example of this type of psychological conflict occurred in a recent high-profile shooting by an officer. Since this event two distinct group social identities have formed—those who feel the officer shot an individual in the act of surrendering and those who believe the officer saw a lethal threat and shot him pursuant to applicable department deadly force procedures.
The public reaction and emotional response toward the officer involved initiated a social identity confliction for police officers. Do law enforcement personnel fulfill their duty to protect citizens despite these same in-group members protesting against their fellow officer, or do they protect one of their own who may have acted according to policy when he perceived a lethal threat? In this confusing mental state, people look to group leaders to determine which identity, if any, has primacy. If a leader cannot assist in resolving the mental conflict or if a group leader moves to one social identity as opposed to the other, the groups quickly can transform into an us-versus-them mentality.
Upon making their choice the group members will perceive the group’s level of power and superiority over the other. This perception has substantial behavioral considerations. Regardless of who perceives in-group status, normative behavior is destined to devolve without a balanced leader respectful and cognizant of the competing social identities. “The emotions of participants from the less-powerful group are often closer to the surface—meaning that they might be reluctant to speak, but when they do, they are quite expressive emotionally. They might be filled with rage and vent their feelings without modulating their expression so it can be heard by those from the other side. In these moments participants are concerned about expressing their own feelings, rather than communicating with others.”3
In response to the recent shooting incident, the expression of long-pent-up emotions has manifested in the form of civil unrest, both lawful and unlawful. While most civilians follow the laws as they protest perceived inequities, a few cross the line into illegality. When civil disobedience flares into unlawfulness, law enforcement officers sometimes generalize and inadvertently place unfamiliar civilians in the opposing group, identifying them as criminals and thugs. “At the intergroup level, social identity research has also suggested that threats to in-group status will increase malicious responses to out-groups that pose such a threat.”4
These threats arise when opposing group members assemble legally and some outlying group members use the anonymity provided by the gathering to inflict verbal or physical attacks on officers or, in the worst circumstances, commit illegal acts. In the area where the recent shooting event happened, police have endured Molotov cocktails and other objects thrown at them. The threat to community peace and officer safety further confirms the primacy of the social identity wherein officers protect each other, thus, solidifying the social identity bond between fellow officers.
The leadership that arises in these situations frequently is biased or lacking objectivity, whether intentional or unintentional. Leaders must remain self-aware in volatile situations and assert emotional intelligence skills by understanding the perspective of the out-group. “Awareness of power dynamics helps group members understand those who come from the ‘other side.’”5
When faced with crowd control, police departments may send in riot control squads and deploy military vehicles to the scene. While justified in using appropriate means to ensure the safety of their officers, law enforcement leaders must consider the implications of pursuing such a response. In the city where the shooting occurred, upon seeing police wearing riot gear and riding in military vehicles, one protester responded by saying, “If they want war, we will give them war.” Although predictable, this response probably was the opposite of the reaction desired by police executives.
Police responses to mass gatherings can have unintended consequences. “Regardless of the intentions of one of the groups, their actions will be interpreted by the other group. This interpretation can often differ from the real intentions of the first group. However, the other group reacts on the basis of its own interpretation of the incident and thereby creates a new context for the first group. Actions may be conscious, but the intentions behind the action are often not perceived.”6
During a soccer championship in 2000, police took two distinct approaches to crowd control and security. One involved a traditional approach—amassing large numbers of personnel clad in riot gear ready to respond immediately to unruliness. The other employed small informal groups of up to four officers dressed like attendees to roam through the crowd and identify trouble spots as they arose. The results favored the informal approach as a preventative measure against group violence. “Avoiding informal interaction and treating the crowd as a whole as a possible source of trouble created far greater hostility within the crowd than when officers interacted with the crowd in an open and friendly way.”7
Policing a group in such traditional ways further entrenches the perception that officers have a power advantage. “Very often, participants from the dominant side tend to speak first and to take up more space. They tend to be more confident and more talkative.”8 As the perceived stronger group dominates the conversation, it causes a reaction in the minority group. “Members of the subordinate community may come to the group with a very strong voice or develop a strong voice within the group itself. They might find it difficult to speak up, but when they do, members of the dominant group can be reluctant to respond or challenge them for fear of seeming ‘insensitive’ or ‘racist.’ This can lead to a kind of self-censoring that interferes with opportunities for difficult but positive interactions.”9 To end this downward spiral of emotions, behaviors, and actions, a leader must emerge who can communicate a new and relevant social identity, one that includes both separatist groups.
The famous Robbers Cave experiment involved two independent groups of boys with no previous social relations who unwittingly participated together.10 The individuals in each group took part in designed activities to promote social bonding within their groups.
Once each group bonded, the competing groups were introduced, and subsequent daily activities included rewards for the winning group. Shortly thereafter social norms deteriorated, and an us-versus-them condition formed. Participants committed overt and covert acts. Reactions included frequent name calling; physical confrontations; burning one group’s representative flag; and ravaging an opposing group’s cabin, which also included theft of personal items contained within.
When the researchers tried to remove the entrenched hostility between the two groups, they were met with disastrous results because every attempt at harmony between them resulted in more verbal and physical altercations. Only when the researchers devised scenarios in which continued disharmony would harm both groups did mutual cooperation result.
The researchers intentionally damaged the water supply to the camp. Knowing they needed water to survive, the boys in each competing group put aside their differences and formed a new social identity inclusive of each other.
From that point forward, the heated disagreements waned. Before long, the boys socialized between groups and identified “enemy” boys as best friends. The intergroup harmony became so powerful that boys from one group with money left over in their treasury account voluntarily paid for milkshakes for the other group’s members who had exhausted their money.11
Whoever emerges as the leader in a crisis will have to create a joint social identity that group members will consider imperative to their future survival. An all-inclusive social identity may not be hard to create, but getting opposing group members to become less entrenched in their original social identities could prove difficult.
One of the psychological side effects of cognitive dissonance is that once a choice is made, mental rationalizations occur, relieving the stress of having to make the choice. “Research on cognitive dissonance theory has compellingly shown that people augment the attractiveness of the chosen alternative and reduce the attractiveness of the rejected alternative(s) (i.e., the desirability ratings of the chosen and rejected alternatives spread apart) after making a difficult decision. Such ‘spreading apart’ helps to reduce possible bad feelings produced by cognitive inconsistencies (i.e., thoughts on the negative aspects of the chosen alternative or the positive aspects of the rejected alternative) people may have about the attitude object.”12
This process allows leaders to resolve any remaining internal conflict by ensuring themselves that they made the right choice, a classic cognitive bias in decision making. “As a result of overconfidence and confirmation bias, we are stubbornly slow to realize we have made poor decisions.”13 This social psychological behavior increases the us-versus-them mentality because group members are innately prone to refuse to admit they made a discretionary error. This reluctance to admit error becomes further entrenched when persons publicly declare their decision.
History is full of examples of leaders, such as Nelson Mandela, who faced similar dilemmas. Mandela’s model of transformational leadership involving collaboration, forgiveness, and the ability to listen to other perspectives is a tonic to ease existing group member biases. “When individuals behave in a group frame, emotional biases, heuristics, and other tendencies that favor in-group members and disfavor out-group members are much more likely to be present. Among other effects, these tendencies can result in individuals selectively attending to stimuli, assimilating information in a biased manner, and selectively remembering facts and events surrounding the conflict. Each of these factors can complicate dispute resolution. In addition, these tendencies profoundly shape one’s attitude toward another and, in this case, cause fear, distrust, and hostility to out-group members, making resistance to conflict resolution stronger in the context of group conflicts.”14
Mandela and others negotiated through this resistance using both innate and learned traits. One author opined that Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela similarly could achieve reconciliation between two opposing social identities, that they both could relate to group members who had diametrically opposed perspectives. Such leaders “…have a high sense of self-efficacy and of confidence in their ability to influence others, but also understand their own fallibility. Aware of their own potential for changing their beliefs and for effecting such change in others, they therefore have high estimations of others’ potential for change. They are able to imagine themselves in their adversaries’ situation and to understand adversaries’ motives nonjudgmentally, rather than in terms of moral failings.”15
By approaching leadership in such a manner, no one is made to feel guilty for their choices, but group members also are introduced to perspectives they failed to consider. “People often come into groups with their own community’s narrative firmly embedded within them, often at an unconscious level. As participants listen to the stories, experiences, and feelings of people from the ‘the other side,’ they come to realize that there is a different perspective. An internal cognitive and emotional structure once taken for granted becomes subject to question.”16 In protest situations police officers can begin to understand why the public is protesting their actions, and community members can learn the inherent dangers of protecting a community, as well as the split-second decisions officers make daily.
Often facilitated by a balanced leader, such discussion engenders a new mutual respect that can be transferred to other group members so that the new belief becomes the social norm. Instead of looking at the other group as “them,” the new perspective becomes more inclusive, allowing a common social identity, an “us,” to gradually form. In addition, leaders should publicize commonalities and successes as the competing social identities merge. “By providing group members with the sense that they can achieve difficult goals and succeed in challenging endeavors, leaders motivate followers to work hard, to put in the hours, and to make the commitment to accomplish goals because the followers believe that success will be a result of their efforts.”17
As people in the community move around each day, they drift between social identities. They alternately move between groups depending on where they are and what they are doing. Police officers do the same. However, prevailing social identities can compete against each other, forcing individuals to choose which social identity has primacy. As shown in recent events and in countless times throughout history, making the right choice is essential to overall social norms and the police and other governmental protectors of these social norms. If these authority figures lose balance and lean toward one of the competing identities, social decorum deteriorates. Leaders must remain aware of the past and cognizant of ways to avoid losing society’s equilibrium. If they do not, groups will fall into the us-versus-them mentality and devolve.
Supervisory Special Agent Hood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.