Getting from “Us and Them” to “You and Me”

I’ve been reading about category-based models of group contact in a paper by Gaertner and Dovidio (Reducing Intergroup Conflict: From Superordinate Goals to Decategorization, Recategorization, and Mutual Differentiation). It’s good stuff if you are interested in strategies for breaking down the barriers between silos. As they lay out in the title, there are three principle models for resolving group conflict:

  • decategorization
  • recategorization
  • mutual differentiation

Decategorization involves getting people in groups focused on group membership and their common attributes as members of a group, to move their focus someplace else. It could be that they pay more attention to their own individual needs, or perhaps they focus on a different set of attributes that cuts across the group they are a member of and the “other” group. For instance, if I’m in a political rally (Democrats and Republicans, whatever…) and someone makes an appeal to me to, “Ask not what my country can do for me, but for what I can do for my country.” The emphasis of that speech focuses on my own contribution as an individual. With that change in focus, perhaps I think of myself along the lines of an individual with something to contribute and perhaps less as a member of a group with a specific agenda.

Another example of decategorization might be to start with a pair of opposed groups (Scrum Masters, and PMPs?) and ask them to identify things they have in common. Find out how many in the group are sailors. Ask them to share their sailing stories. Create bonds across a dimension that is orthogonal to the dimension of conflict between the two groups. If it’s a political conflict, find out if there are folks who love golf, or movies, or baseball – anything the groups have in common.

According to Gaertner and Dovidio, to insure that decategorization takes place, there are a few prerequisites:

  • Equal status between the groups
  • Some level of cooperative intergroup interaction
  • Opportunities for “self revealing personal acquaintance”

So it’s probably reasonable to assume that decategorization as it is outlined here won’t work well for entrenched groups in severe conflict. I guess that means I can’t use it with my relatives…

So what about recategorization? Recategorization is similar to decategorization in that we are once again going to appeal to people to find cross cutting similarities in their group memberships. However unlike decategorization, which tends to focus on the small things we may share in common, recategorization focuses on higher order group membership. If we are members of different departments in conflict (oh, say Dev and Ops) then we can appeal to the fact that we all work for the same company. We all share the same customers, and so on. To quote Gaertner and Dovidio,

“…the idea [is] that a person’s potential in-groups can vary hierarchically in inclusiveness (e.g. from one’s family to one’s neighborhood, to one’s city, to one’s nation, to all of humankind)”

-p. 102

So what if neither decategorization or recategorization ring your particular bell? Fortunately we have one more categorization tool at our disposal and that is mutual differentiation. The idea with mutual differentiation is that rather than trying to reduce the differences between two groups, we instead emphasize their differences and their cooperative interdependence. Rather than de-emphasize differences, we celebrate them. We talk with honesty and integrity about the strengths of the two groups and we also make sure that we are keeping a focus on the fact that they groups still need each other. It sort of feels like an appreciative inquiry approach for working with inter group conflict.

So there you have it: three models for managing group conflict. I’d recommend the Gaertner and Dovidio paper highly, there are lots of good ideas in it. They actually go further in the paper and suggest that not only are these three models useful on their own, but you can also combine them and use them in sequence! Perhaps more on that later…

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