Overcoming in and out groups in teams


Published on: October 2019

Written by: Michael Seitchik

When working with teams, we often hear people complain that there seems to be an “in” group and an “out” group.  The team leader has “favorites,” or in a cross-functional team one sub-group seems to have more influence with decision makers than others.

The feeling that you are part of the out group can have damaging effects on morale and productivity. People in the out group often feel compensation, rewards and recognition are unfairly biased in favor of the in group. The ability to have constructive debate, a key factor in high performing teams, is severely hindered when some people feel they are not listened to because they are in the “wrong” group.  They often either totally retreat (“It isn’t worth trying”) or engage in what is perceived by others as personal attacks (“Why aren’t you listening to me?”).

Research by Northouse (2013) found that members of out groups are more likely to leave their organization, are considered to have bad attitudes, are promoted less often and participate less in team discussions. On the other hand, he found that members of the in group tend to get better information, have more influence, get special treatment and get better assignments.

People in the out group feel underrepresented. For example, engineers might feel they are the out group in a meeting dominated by operations or marketing people. People who are VPs might feel their ideas are not given proper respect when they are in meetings with SVPs or with the Executive Team. People in the out group feel there is a bias against them. They feel unheard. They feel disrespected. Things seem unfair.

This presence of in and out groups creates an “us” versus “them” culture which interferes with team cohesion. And, team cohesion is a significant factor in team performance (Shea & Guzzo, 1987).

Losing Out with “Us Versus Them”

Getting rid of this us versus them culture can be difficult because it is so seductive. Leaders like the in group because they tend to be aligned with the leader’s ideas and experience. They give the leader what they want. In return the leader gives the in group what they want.  As a result, the leader and members of the in group are very happy with this arrangement.

Furthermore, people who are part of the in group often don’t even see that there is an issue of bias or unfairness in the team. This has two profound effects:

  1. When people who are part of the out group raise a concern or point out what they think is an unfair behavior, they are often perceived as being too sensitive or complaining over nothing. Of course, this just makes the situation worse.
  2. Because the in group often doesn’t see it, they may miss the warning signs that there is an issue. That is, the warning signs go unnoticed by the only people who have the power to fix the situation – the leader and the in group.

Closing the “In/Out” Gap

However, there are some things leaders and teams can do to reduce the gulf between the in and out groups including:

  • Have the leader make a list of the characteristics of people in the in group and the out group.

The team leader should make this list but keep it confidential. The leader should study the list to determine what differentiates the two groups. What behaviors makes people part of the in group, and what behaviors characterize those in the out group? Then the leader should determine what to do to help people in the out group develop the skills and behaviors of those people that are part of the in group.

A variant of this exercise is for the leader to say to the entire team, “It’s not unusual for any team to have an in group and an out group. I don’t want anyone to try to state who they think is in which group. We may not even have these two groups, but I think this will be a valuable exercise.”

Then, have two flipcharts: One marked “In group” and the other “Out group.” Have team members use Post-it Notes to write down the skills or behaviors they think are characteristic of each group and put them on the two flipcharts.

After team members have had a chance to study the flipcharts and ask any clarifying questions about what is on any of the Post-it Notes, the team should discuss:

  • Was it easy or hard to determine whether or not there is an in and an out group?
  • Was it easy or hard to identify differences between the two groups?
  • What are the common themes for each group?
  • What differentiates the two groups?
  • What can be done to reduce the gaps between the two groups?
  • Give each team member an equal chance to participate in meetings.

For example, the team leader asks team members for their questions or concerns about a current issue or project. Ask each person to write down their top three questions or concerns. Then, go around the room, calling on each person to give one idea before going to the next. If the next person’s idea has already been stated, the person gives the second idea on his or her list. The leader writes down each idea without comment except to clarify the person’s statement. Go around the room until all different ideas are shared.

Then the leader can lead a discussion on the ideas, respond to each idea, taking whatever action is appropriate. The point is for everyone to have an equal shot at expressing themselves and getting their idea respected.

  • Give team members an opportunity to get to know each other on a more personal level.

For example,

  • Periodically spend time at the beginning of a meeting asking members to share a short story about something funny that happened to them in the past week or two, or some other recent event that made them feel particularly happy or upset.
  • Have everyone discuss a skill or experience they could contribute to the team but for whatever reason is not being shared with others.
  • Have people share a talent or personal interest that others may not know about.
  • Have people share what they wanted to grow up to be when they were five years old.

Encourage people to learn more about each other, so you get a fuller picture of who they are beyond daily business transactions. Embolden people to feel they can share more of themselves–who they truly are. You want people to appreciate the richness others can bring to work, decision making, and the team’s vision.

Belonging as the Key to Close the Gap

One way to explore if your team has members who feel excluded is to use the Leadership Team Performance Index (the LTPI™). One facet we measure is “Belonging,” that measures the degree to which team members feel their differences are valued and respected. This facet includes items such as:

  • The team weighs and considers their different perspectives when making decisions.
  • Team members openly discuss when they feel discounted or excluded.

How team members rate items such as these will offer insight into whether or not there is an in group and an out group. For example, if there is a large spread or variation in how team members answer the questions in Belonging, it may be sign some team members feel excluded.

Other clues could be found in rating in other facets such as Commitment (feeling engaged), Candor (believing you can be open and honest with teammates), and Courage (feeling the team faces difficult issues).

Even more warning signs can be found in rater comments. For example, in the open-ended comment section of the LTPI™, we have encountered comments such as:

  • “There seems to be an inner circle that excludes those not in it.”
  • “There are clearly favorites on this team. When I say something, it is often ignored. But if someone else who is on the ‘in’ crowd says the same thing, everyone loves the idea. It is very frustrating.”
  • “There seems to be an A team and a B team with important discussions happening only with the A team.”

If some people feel they are part of the out group, your team is not maximizing the potential contributions of team members.  Whether they are in the “wrong” department, gender, race, nationality, or always have the “wrong” perspective, you are sending a message that they do not count.

Why Get Rid of Your “In” and “Out” Groups?

Study after study shows that innovation is related to diversity. For example, a recent study by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and the Technical University of Munich found a statistically significant positive relationship between diversity of gender, industry background and country of origin and innovation (2016). They found that the more diversity companies had, the more revenue they got from new products and services. Diversity has a positive impact on the bottom line.

Making team members feel that they belong is not just a “nice-to-have” but a “must-have” if companies want to grow and outperform the competition.  While it may feel great to be a part of the in group or be a leader who prefers to work with the people most like themselves, you are not looking after the greater good. You are only looking after you own good. For the sake of your own team and the company, get rid of in groups and out groups and support and leverage people’s differences for the good of everyone.

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