Us + Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference
Todd Pittinksy
August 2012
Harvard Business Review Press

Many of us undoubtedly have had the discouraging experience of attending a diversity training session that left us feeling worse than we felt before joining what was meant to be a positively transformational experience. Indeed, after being browbeaten by stories of all the pain we were allegedly inflicting (or being subjected to) through behaviors in which we hadn’t even engaged, we were tossed back into our workplace and social settings with the suggestion that we stop engaging in us-versus-them behavior. And it didn’t take more than a few seconds of reflection to recognize how little had changed as a result of our participation in that negatively framed experience.  

A Positive Approach 

Todd Pittinsky, in Us + Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference, offers a different view of how to deliver effective learning opportunities on the theme of diversity. The fact that he proposes an “us plus them” approach rather than what he cites as the overwhelmingly predominant “us versus them” model in academic research provides an effectively convincing enticement to change the way we view and deliver much of what we do. 

Pittinsky consistently combines the engagement of anecdotes with the authority of well-described research to support his thesis—a wonderful model for all of us involved in fostering changes within the organizations we serve. For example, his opening story captures a moment most of us would probably have missed: visiting his nephew’s middle school, he reads a posted copy of a pledge students are asked to take—a commitment to “challenge prejudice and to stop those who, because of hate, would hurt, harass or violate the civil rights of anyone.”  

It is within this moment that Pittinsky wonders aloud why so much of what we do in trying to create a better world (in school settings, in work, in our communities, and in just about every other venue where two or more of us interact) focuses on eradicating prejudice rather than focusing on what attracts us to each other so we can foster more of whatever that critically important element is.  

“As I see it, the school’s leadership was leading away from something, but not toward something,” he explains. 

Pittinsky’s overt point is that by focusing solely on reducing prejudicial behavior, we focus on negative behavior—an approach that he consistently argues is far from effective. Much more productive, he suggests, is identifying the positive elements that support collaboration and exchanges between people of differing backgrounds and attitudes because these are the elements that bring us closer to the goal of being able to work (and play) effectively with those we might otherwise feel uncomfortable approaching.

A Challenge for Readers 

Pittinsky provides us with a major challenge: Change deeply ingrained habits and attitudes in our overall approach to prejudice and collaboration before we can even begin to provide the sort of teaching-training-learning opportunities that will help us reach the goal of any diversity training—positive relationships between wildly diverse groups of people.

Our entire teaching-training-learning industry remains so firmly rooted in taking the negative approach—diminishing what is seen to be discriminatory in our behavior and our attitudes—that we haven’t even had a word to describe a positive approach, Pittinsky maintains.  

He and his colleagues have, therefore, coined a term (“allophilia”) upon which he builds the framework he offers throughout his book. “Reluctant to write out ‘positive attitudes or behaviors toward the members of another group’ every time we wanted to refer to this unnamed attitude in a paper, my colleagues and I finally began using the term allophilia, derived from the Greek words for ‘liking of the other.’ One feels allophilia when one considers 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,” Pittinsky suggests.  

Recognizing Misguided Strategies  

Pittinsky, not surprisingly given his main thesis, devotes an entire chapter to “misguided strategies”—a section that should be required reading not only for all trainer-teacher-learners, but also for anyone who has walked away from any sort of diversity training with a feeling of depression rather than optimism.  

One “major shortcoming,” he says, is the mixed message so much diversity literature produces: “diversity is our strength” and “deep down, we are really all the same.” That contradiction, he maintains, “has increased people’s cynicism about whether it is even possible to do anything about tension and conflict between groups in the world.”  

A second misguided strategy, he continues, is to discourage explorations of the differences that do exist between various individuals and groups in a variety of settings. Avoiding questions for fear of offending the recipient of our curiosity, Pittinsky maintains, means we miss an opportunity to tap curiosity and move toward allophilia—an appreciation for that which is different from what we usually encounter or deeply believe.  

On Our Way to Transformational Moments 

Let’s acknowledge that Pittinsky isn’t working from a position of naiveté here; for that level of curiosity and questioning to work, all parties involved need to assume that the questions and the responses are rooted in an honest desire to better understand the world around us—and our colleagues who inhabit it. If a question is or appears to be delivered in a way that evokes a defensive rather than neutral or positive response, nothing is going to be accomplished.  

If, on the other hand, all parties involved in these conversations assume that the question is developed from a positive sense of curiosity and willingness to gain a new point of view of better understanding of something that previously appeared opaque, we’re on our way to building that level of allophilia that Pittinksy so clearly advocates. 

It’s not as if what Pittinsky is promoting is completely novel in our world. A workshop I once helped organize for a group of people uncomfortable working with their transgender customers was tremendously successful because a) the learners really wanted help in overcoming their discomfort and b) the first-rate, extremely empathic and patient instructor helped the learners explore the roots of their discomfort and responded to concerns and questions with the most positive and nonjudgmental of responses. 

When one of the workshop participants later approached me of his own volition and told me that he found that session to have been a “life-changing experience”—one that produced more positive responses from him than he ever would have expected to have had before taking the class—I knew that we had produced the sort of workplace learning success we strive for every time we agree to design and deliver something for our colleagues. 

If we build upon what Us + Them offers, we’re likely to see even more of those transformational moments that we already are fostering.