“Othering” and the impact on teams and organizations

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Christian Scholtes, TPCL Global Chair and the partner from the TPCL Romanian office, delves into the complex and often overlooked phenomenon of “Othering” and its profound impact on teams and organizations. Through his insightful perspective, Christian explores how this process not only affects interpersonal relations but also has broader implications for organizational culture and effectiveness.

What is “othering”?

”Recent studies have revealed a dark and fascinating phenomenon regarding how we perceive our group versus ‘the others’, those that are not ‘us’. More precisely, when psychology students were asked which group is more homogeneous—themselves or truck drivers—most believed truck drivers to be way more alike. This highlights a tendency to oversimplify and stereotype the ‘other’ group, reducing them to a single, uniform identity.

This process of ‘othering’ can be observed across various social contexts, including ethnicity, gender, geography, and even within organizations, where departments are stereotyped (e.g. ‘all HRs are the same”). As a result, ‘othering’ leads to a form of de-humanization and de-individuation, where people from the other group are seen not as unique individuals, each with their own style and preferences, but as a monolithic mass, devoid of diversity.

Such a mindset severely undermines the essence of communication. If we believe we already know what the ‘other’ thinks because ‘they are all the same’, it diminishes our willingness to engage in a genuine dialogue. This attitude closes off the possibility of mutual understanding and of contracting agreement, which are key to effective communication. Instead of seeing each other as conversation partners working towards a shared agreement, we resort to predefined judgments, talking not to the person in front of us but to the oversimplified version of them, inhabiting our mind.

At a deeper level, I would speculate that this process of ‘othering’ has historically enabled some of the worst acts of inhumanity, making it easier to justify starving or bombing ‘the others’ because they were seen not as people but as sub-humans, beings without individuality, personality, or free will. Unlike us, the ‘true humans,’ they are perceived as merely resembling us superficially, yet actually being so fundamentally different—they were, are, and always will be ‘the others’.

This phenomenon also raises a critical question about its causality. Does this oversimplification arise because it’s easier to then ignore/ neglect/ hamper/ destroy ‘the other,’ or does our desire to dominate them lead to their oversimplification? Or maybe we just can’t be bothered to make the effort of building a shared reality with ‘the others’?

I don’t have an obvious answer to these questions. However, what I’m pretty sure of is that, as long as we’re engaging in ‘othering’, we’re closing our minds, hearts and souls to actual conversations and to finding shared workable solutions to complex problems.”

Acknowledging “othering” behavior

The insight into “Othering” provided by Christian Scholtes highlights a pervasive obstacle within teams and organizations: the tendency to stereotype and marginalize those viewed as different. This behavior not only diminishes the potential for genuine communication and collaboration but also stifles the diversity that drives innovation and growth.

Acknowledging and challenging “Othering” practices paves the way for a more inclusive and dynamic organizational culture, where every individual’s uniqueness is valued and dialogue fosters mutual understanding and collective success.

 

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