Friday, 19 February 2016

Kim and Tui: in-group versus out-group leadership

I heard the other day about an interesting situation in a workplace. Two second year engineering degree student interns - Chris and Lou - are working in their respective engineering speciality for a firm that I know of. Chris and Lou are both realistically confident, are studying at the same University, and chat often to catch up on each other's progress.

They are working for two different heads of department; Kim and Tui, also both engineers.

What is really interesting is that Kim and Tui are leading Chris and Lou in very different ways.

Kim's intern, Chris, asks lots of questions. Kim goes and finds the answers, then tells Chris what action to take. Yet when Kim is leading full-time, permanent staff, there is more discussion. Chris is noticing a difference in Kim's leadership style which seems to apply only to him.

Tui's intern, Lou, also asks lots of questions. Tui asks Lou what action might be appropriate in this situation, and they have a discussion about possibilities. Lou usually works out what seems to be the most logical solution.

Why this is interesting, is that Chris and Lou have a common friend, Pat, who is interning at another firm nearby, whose parents know Tui.

Tui has heard - through Pat's parents - that Chris wishes that, like Lou, he was working for Tui, because he is finding it hard to stay motivated when working for Kim, is feeling a bit under-challenged, and is starting to loose confidence as an engineer.

What is happening here is an interesting pattern of leadership exchange known as 'in-group' and 'out-group' behaviours.

In-group behaviours are where we give our workers:
  • the freedom to self-determine how they will tackle a job, clearly explaining what we need to achieve, then leave it largely up to the individual to decide how they will do that. That is not to say that we leave people to sink or swim: as a leader, we ask questions to help the worker to decide what would be the best actions to take, but we do not tell.
  • our ear. We listen carefully to worker's suggestions and ideas, and use those ideas where they will work, giving credit to the worker. This empowers our team to be more creative, and helps everyone focus on what is in the best interests of the company.
  • trust. Workers know they can try something after thinking it through and discussing it, and if they make a mistake, it will be treated as on-going learning. Mistakes are simply steps on the way to professional practice, and the same ones won't be repeated.
  • challenging work. Everyone will get some interesting projects, as well as some of the routine tasks. But everyone will be expected to think.
  • acknowledgement. Worker success is credited to where it is due, regardless of who that person is and what their rank is in the team.

Out-group behaviours, on the other hand, are where we dictate actions to workers; take no notice of their own suggestions; punish mistakes so we make workers tentative, stop thinking or even completely switch off; keep all the exciting jobs for ourselves; micro-manage; tell workers how we are 'right'; and keep remembering mistakes, not successes.

These two types of behaviour can happen within the same group: with one or two perceived poorer-performers treated as out-group members. Out-group treatment is a very powerful and - worse - often unconscious set of behaviours. If the leader treats someone in this way, it is often picked up by others in the group. We are a monkey-see, monkey-do animal.

The most wonderful way of working is to treat ALL our employees as in-group employees. We will find that everyone on the team, regardless of ability, starts to behave more like star performers. And once they trust that this will be our consistent behaviour, they too will become more like the stars they can be.

However, it does require us to be able to step back a little and to observe ourselves and how we relate to our people. Reflection is a powerful tool for this.

And just to finish off, Tui is having a chat with Kim, and passing on some in-group/out-group materials. Hopefully Kim will start using in-group behaviours.


  • Daft, Richard L. (2009). The Leadership Experience (Fourth Edition). USA: Cengage.
  • Tajfel, Henri & Turner, John C. (1979). Chapter 3: An integrative theory of intergroup conflict, in W. G. Austin & S. Worchel's (Eds) The Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations. USA: Brooks Cole (pp. 33-47).

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