“Them” Vs “Us”

 “THEM” Vs “US”

I reckon one of the greatest challenges facing Scottish education is the way in which people use the third person plural in a negative sense.

Listen to any conversation about education and very soon “they” will emerge as the problem. So teachers will talk about “them” (management), management will talk about “them” (teachers and the local authority) and those in the local authority will talk about “them” (schools and the government).

Of course there are many others groups who can be characterised as “them” – children, parents, IT managers, unions, finance departments, politicians, social workers, doctors, the media – “if only “they” could do their jobs properly then all would be well”.

By externalising the problem we strengthen our allegiance to our own group – “we need to work together or “they” will ……….” Yet what is fascinating is how it’s possible to move (i.e. through promotion) from being one of “us” to one of “them” and also start to think about those whom were recently your colleagues as “them”. I’m not suggesting here that such language is always used in an adversarial sense but that it demarcates and emphasises that the difference between groups.

In many ways it’s natural to refer to any group beyond our own as “them”. So much of our own self-esteem is wrapped up in our social identity where we categorise others and ourselves – often comparing ourselves favourably towards other groups.

Yet are the various groups motivated by such unique and self-contained  drivers? Surely there are more points of overlap in our interests than there are differences?

That’s why I’m going to:

  • a) stop using any negative reference to “they” or “them” in any conversation
  • b) challenge people to clarify what they mean whenever they use the second person plural in a negative sense.

I tried b) for the first time today and just by challenging a stereotypical view of another group seemed to help produce a more positive discussion rather than just simply nodding when an entire group of people were swept up in the accusatory “them”.

I know this sounds a bit optimistic but I’d like to replace “they” and “them”, wherever possible, with “us” and “we”.

Last point – we in Scotland have another form of colloquial second person plural, namely “yous” – but that’s for another day!

Allegiance Leadership – a destructive force

I’ve been thinking a great deal about Norman Kunc’s presentation on belonging within an inclusive culture.

One of his key assertions is that we often develop a sense of allegiance in the “void of belonging”.  His point was that by creating a common enemy we are provided with a sense of belonging to something. It’s this notion of a common enemy which I’d like to explore in this post.

The defintion of Allegiance reads as follows:

1. Loyalty or the obligation of loyalty, as to a nation, sovereign, or cause.

2. The obligations of a vassal to a lord

However, I think the way that Norman was using the word related more to Communalism ( a word I’ve never come across before):

1. Belief in or practice of communal ownership, as of goods and property.

2. Strong devotion to the interests of one’s own minority or ethnic group rather than those of society as a whole.

It’s the second of these definitions – which interests me.

Throughout my career I’ve seen innumerable leaders at all levels in education use “communalism” as a key feature of their leadership strategy – “it’s us against them” ( I should admit here that I’ve used it myself). By focussing the attention of those whom they lead upon the “dark forces” who exist beyond their ‘world’ attention is diverted from some of the fundamental leadership weaknesses which might have been apparent if the ‘team’ were not bound together against the common enemy.

The dark forces/common enemy can take many forms – management teams; other schools; parents; pupils;  local authority; government; press; other departments.

The common characteristic of all those groups is that they can be described by the protaganist as “them” – whereas the team is “us”.

The reality is that this strategy can be useful in gaining support, pulling people together and in enabling the team to create a common sense of purpose which will sustain them through difficult times. However, the consequence of such a strategy is that it destroys any possibility of collaborative work – which makes the most of everyone’s potential – as long as the team is successful in their narrow terms, then the well being of broader society is not their concern. Or perhaps – as Maggie Thatcher once said – “there’s no such thing as society”?

I’d like to argue that “Allegiance” Leadership is ultimately lazy leadership and if allowed to continue only serves to undermine the potential of any organisation.

On further reflection – and the thought has only just struck me – allegiance leadership, with its roots in communalism has a strong relationship to what Richard Elmore has been saying about autonomy being antagonistic to professionalism. For it seems to me that the allegiance leadership model is all about creating an autonomous “state” which operates under its own code of conduct and separate culture, with little reference to that outwith its boundaries – however false these boundaries might be.