Us + Them: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: August 20th, 2012 by bobmorris

Us + Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference
Todd L. Pittinsky
Harvard Business Review Press (2012)

How and why “the power of difference” can help us to replace negative “Us-and-Them” relations with positive ones

As I began to read this book, I was reminded of the fact that the word “barbarians” (barbaroi) was coined in ancient Greece to identify “all who are not Greek.” Centuries later in the musical and film South Pacific, the title of one of many memorable songs (music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II) is “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” Consider these lines:

“You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,

“You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!”

Hammerstein’s lyrics suggest that elders – the leaders of one generation — carefully prepare those in the next generation to hate the “same people their relatives hate.” That is why, in Us+Them, Todd Pittinsky is primarily concerned about the role of leadership, especially because, as he suggests, “There is a leadership gap in us-and-them relations at many levels from schools to nations. Leaders have been misled [and have then misled countless others] about what kinds of us-and-them relations are possible.” Moreover, “this gap has roots in the social sciences, which – for historical and honorable reasons – focused easily but too exclusively on hatred and prejudice.”

What Pittinsky recommends in this brilliant book is a rigorous and substantive pursuit of “the full spectrum of possible us-and-them relations, both those that already exist and those that could exist.” I do not recall seeing any references to the “zero sum” mindset but that is certainly what the formulation of the “non-Greek” designation indicates. At least since the Trojan War more than 3,000 years ago, many (most?) leaders viewed the world in zero sum terms. Battles and wars are either won or lost; third parties are either allies or enemies, and all who attempt to remain neutral are suspect. Efforts after World War One to establish a League of Nations failed. Then leaders emerged in Italy, Germany, and Russia who plunged other countries into World War Two. The United Nations was then formed but has thus far failed to achieve unity among nations. There remains a leadership gap at the U.N. as well as between and among most of its member nations.

Pittinsky calls for leaders who recognize any and all opportunities that will enable differences to lead to relationships based on mutual respect and trust rather than on reluctant tolerance. He was unable to locate an antonym for –prejudice, discrimination, and hostility toward others who are different. Finally, he coined the term “allophilia” (derived from the Greek words for “liking of the other”) to suggest what a person feels when considering a group of people as “them” rather than a part of “us” and “is drawn to the members of that group, interested in them, or positively predisposed toward them.”

Here are a few of the dozens of passages that caught my eye:

o  Revelations from research on relations between Jews and Arabs living in Israel (Pages 28-29)
o  The five distinct forms of allophilia (47-50)
o  Myths of the “Hateful Human” (63-82)
o  Institutional problems with the Science of “Us and Them” (85-90)
o  Limitations of shared goals and shared identities (106-111)
o  The “Empathy Error” and why it is an error (129-141)
o  How to influence how pride is perceived (163-168)
o  The role of formal authority (173-176)
o  Seven Bold Steps that Leaders Can Take (181-204)

In Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin explains that following his election as President in 1860, Abraham Lincoln assembled a cabinet whose members included several of his strongest political opponents: Edwin M. Stanton as Secretary of War (who had called Lincoln a “long armed Ape”), William H. Seward as Secretary of State (who was preparing his acceptance speech when Lincoln was nominated), Salmon P. Chase as Secretary of the Treasury (who considered Lincoln in all respects his inferior), and Edward Bates as Attorney General who viewed Lincoln as a well-meaning but incompetent administrator but later described him as “very near being a perfect man.”

Throughout his Presidency, Lincoln possessed what Roger Martin characterizes (in The Opposable Mind) as integrative thinking: “the predisposition and the capacity to hold two [or more] diametrically opposed ideas” in his head and then “without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other,” was able to “produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea.” Throughout his presidency, Lincoln frequently demonstrated integrative thinking, a “discipline of consideration and synthesis [that] is the hallmark of exceptional businesses [as well as of democratic governments] and those who lead them.

As Todd Pittinsky explains so well in his book, there can be no resolution of dysfunctional relations (us-or-them, us-versus-them, either us-or-no-one-else, etc.) unless and until leaders emerge who are integrative thinkers, who not only welcome but cherish differences, and who create and then sustain a culture within which there is mutual trust and respect, to be sure, but also mutual appreciation.

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