Us vs. Them is a Losing Game

Category: Strategy

A common method used to rally the troops is to identify a common enemy that all can agree to hate and unite to defeat. This common purpose makes all other differences small in comparison.

Over the years, this militaristic approach has been adopted by many companies and corporations. The united enemy is usually the competition. For instance, the company my father worked for was number four in market share. One year the vision and all strategies centered around the goal of becoming number two.


The result of this effort was a reshaping of the culture around beating out the competition. The employees banded together with a rallying cry of “We are number two!” (Yes, I know this sounds strange, but it’s true. The market was dominated by one very large player and a handful of much smaller players. Being number two was achievable; beating out number one would have taken 10x the effort. But then again, who knows what would have happened had they gone after the number one spot.)

Not surprisingly, the company made its goal and became the number two company in market share. Soon though, results fell flat, the culture became less dynamic, and key people started leaving the organization. What happened?

Building a culture around beating the competition has two drawbacks:

1.    Once the goal is met or defeat is recognized, the uniting force and focus is lost.

2.    Energy goes into being better than someone else rather than becoming the best we can be.

What happens when the rival goes away, either by being bested or simply failing? The company and culture loses its focus and all those differences that were dormant and inconsequential become more imposing and important. They begin to detract attention from more important issues and erode the culture. In reality, a culture based on beating others is flawed. People are not united in a common act of creation and intention; they are merely united in a common goal. Once the goal is gone, the collective again divides.

Worse, if the goal is unable to be achieved for any reason, the culture is wrought with depression, finger pointing, and recriminations. People start to turn on others to deflect blame and the best and strongest leave for better opportunities. This scenario is common in professional sports teams when they don’t make the play offs.

The strongest cultures are built around a strong internal brand. In this scenario, everyone is in agreement on the big issues and the little things are merely petty differences that everyone honors or ignores. The goal is to be the best at what we do. And if that enables us to beat out the competition, that’s a bonus. Two excellent examples of companies with this type of culture are Zappos.com and Starbucks.

Both of these companies are large and successful. And they did not become that way by rallying the troops with a call to become number one. Instead, they concentrated on their internal brand, identified what was important to them (their values) and made that stronger. Continuous attention and energy was then applied to expand and leverage the culture into a vibrant external brand.

Yes, you need to pay attention to existing and potential competition. It’s foolish to ignore what is going on around you, but that cannot be your primary focus. Think of a runner on the track. His focus and attention needs to be on the race that he is running. As soon as he looks over his shoulder to check on his competitors, he stumbles.

Similarly, the majority of a company’s energy should be directed inward to the creation of a values based organization that attracts and keeps the best people. The right people are what grow an enduring culture and lead to lasting competitive advantages.

Are you focused on beating the competition? If so, how can you change your focus to becoming the best?