Leadership and the In-Group/Out-Group Phenomenon

July 26, 2022 Nicole Johnson

Humans naturally divide themselves into in-groups and out-groups. It is an instinctive behavior: we are hardwired to look to ally with people who are like us. This is called similarity bias and it mostly happens at an unconscious level.

The implication of similarity bias is that we tend to have a less than positive or negative opinion toward those who are different from us. We make superficial judgments about people based on their gender, skin color, religion, etc.

Similarity bias puts us in a position of being unfair to ourselves and to others. I say it is unfair because most people don't want to make superficial judgments or perpetuate stereotypes. I believe most people want to make the world a better place and not disrespect or de-value others.

Despite these best intentions, the in-group/out-group phenomenon is alive in the workplace. A simple example can be seen when people are building a team: they are more likely to select individuals who are similar in appearance, thinking, decision making, and problem solving. But research has long proven that diverse teams are far more productive, creative, and innovative than homogeneous ones. Unfortunately, instinct triumphs over reason, even though the facts point to the wiser course of action.

The in-group/out-group phenomenon extends far past the people you pick to be on your team. It can affect how an organization or an employee treats customers. Who people choose to work with. Who receives choice assignments. Who gets hired. Who gets promoted. Who gets recognition. Who gets rewarded. In other words, it affects everything. In its wake it can leave demoralized employees, poor productivity, high turnover, and more.

Considering the many benefits of inclusion and the damaging effect of in-group/out-group behavior in the workplace, it behooves leaders to address this issue.

It Starts with Awareness

The in-group/out-group phenomenon is probably as old as our species. Addressing it is a long-term process. It begins with every individual owning that they are influenced by similarity bias. There are no exceptions. If you are human, you are going have biases.

There is no implication of guilt in this statement. We are hardwired to protect ourselves, so we look for others who are like us. Still, leaders need to take a hard look at the people on their teams and understand how similarity bias is affecting their decisions.

Take Organizational Action

Once leaders understand how similarity bias is affecting their behavior in the immediate environment, they need to take necessary corrective action in the wider environment. For example, is your company in a male-dominated industry? Do men hold most leadership positions? Do employees share commonalities in appearance, religion, and so forth?

Picking more diverse new hires is a simple tactic a company can use. But unless the current environment is a welcoming one, the new hires will feel uncomfortable, not accepted, and generally excluded (i.e., part of the out-group). So the diverse hiring goals are likely to fail. Addressing similarity bias must be a holistic and sustained effort. It takes time for people to overcome hardwired biases.

Organizations need an inclusion strategy. It begins with expanding your idea of who's included in your in-groups. More specifically, it’s not as much about changing your in-group perspective as it is about expanding it so that others are welcome. This is a gradual, positive change, in contrast to force-feeding people ideas about inclusion.

To some, efforts to overcome similarity bias can seem sinister—but only if they are presented in the wrong way. Leaders need to stress that everyone has biases and that they are natural protection mechanisms. They should not be a cause of shame. However, it is necessary to acknowledge that if left unchecked, our biases—especially similarity bias—have the potential to do harm. From this perspective, we can deal with in-group/out-group issues with maturity and wisdom.

A Personal Experience

Years ago, before it was fairly common to discuss unconscious bias, I elected to facilitate a class on unconscious bias for a group of leaders in the federal sector. I spoke about different types of biases that are common in the workplace from a factual perspective. I shared that we all are biased and engage in biased behaviors. As I spoke, I could see some participants becoming defensive. One participant verbally expressed disbelief that everyone was biased. I could see my opportunity slipping away to share important information to help their leadership journey.

While it was a very humbling experience, I became a better facilitator because of it. I learned how NOT to alienate individuals on highly sensitive topics (like bias) that could impact their self-perceptions.

So remember: The purpose of exploring the human phenomenon of similarity bias and other unconscious biases is not to cause division, alienation, or defensiveness. Rather, as my mother used to say, “When you know better, you do better.” As we gain a deeper understanding of why we feel what we feel and do what we do, and of our unintended impact on others, we can certainly do better—for the sake of making our interactions with each other more meaningful and beneficial.

About the Author

Nicole Johnson

Nicole Johnson, PhD, is a Consulting Partner for Blanchard®. Her consulting and delivery styles focus on meeting the needs of her clients through a very considered and thoughtful emphasis on adult learning and real-world application. Since joining Blanchard, Nicole’s focus has been on helping individual contributors and leaders at all levels use the SLII® framework to enhance their performance and establish high-quality relationships.

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