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Brain circuits

How to spot team entrenchment

Published 22 July 2021 in Brain circuits • 2 min read

In the workplace, people naturally divide into groups of “like-minded” others. We often spend most of our time at work organized into silos or divisions, clusters, or even interest groups. Group entrenchment happens when people start to become so identified with their (sub)groups, that the group itself can become “who I am” instead of “what I do”, or “what my profession is”. When this happens, it can trigger a deeper and more “fixed” division between “us and them” and excluding behavior (regardless of whether such a division exists or not). These types of divisions are the basis of a silo mentality and can ignite negative conflict and decrease communication, innovation, and productivity.

Leaders should keep an eye out for emerging subgroups that can ultimately lead to entrenchment. In part one of this two-part series, we focus on the identification of groups.

Do you have teams that are split between the office and remote work? When part of a team is co-located, they can easily share informal and nonverbal interactions that allow them to more easily find things in common. This can result in subgroups with different levels of shared trust, as well as different shared information and commitment to action.

Are people split into subgroups based on surface-level characteristics? These are factors such as race, age, gender, and language. These groups most often form in face-to-face environments or early on because similarity to others is apparent. This type of subgrouping is generally associated with negative outcomes like intergroup conflict.

Are people grouping along deep-level identities? These subgroups can take longer to emerge and are formed along people’s values, beliefs, religion, and ideas about morality. This type of group poses the greatest threat of divisiveness and eventual polarization.

To help uncover some of these groupings ask yourself these questions:

  • Who talks to whom in meetings?
  • Which team members are continuously aligned?
  • Which team members constantly disagree?
  • Who chats together during meetings – virtual or in person?
  • Who turns off their camera when someone from another group is speaking?
  • Who engages in informal interactions such as coffee or jokes?

The answers to these questions can help give cues about whether subgroups exist and along what lines. In part two we will look at how leaders can prevent or diffuse entrenchment on teams.



Alyson Meister - IMD Professor

Alyson Meister

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD

Alyson Meister is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior and Director of the Future Leaders program at IMD Business School. Specializing in the development of globally oriented, adaptive, and inclusive organizations, she has worked with of executives, teams, and organizations from professional services to industrial goods and technology. She also serves as co-chair of One Mind at Work’s Scientific Advisory Committee, with a focus on advancing mental health in the workplace. Follow her on Twitter: @alymeister.


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