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Intergroup theories explain how others around us can influence our behavior and motivation. We may act differently in a group as we do individually. The type of group that we are involved in has a sufficient impact about how we work and if the motivation is effective. When working in a group everyone has an individual identity they seek to protect. Being in a dominant or high-status group will make you feel better about yourself and the other members. The group will protect themselves from outsiders. However, working in a low-status group can diminish individual and group motivation. In-groups and out-groups are the people and groups around us that either work with us or against us. In-groups are the people that are most comfortable and similar to us. They have interests and goals that compare to ours and help us achieve a goal. Out-groups, on the other hand, can be detrimental and impose negatively upon our group or individuals. This group will shun outsiders and try to keep them from entering their group. For example, a group of football players, or the jock group, may prohibit members of the science club from interacting with their group because they feel it impacts the in-groups image. By shunning or refusing to be friends, the in-group protects their image and separates themselves from the other group. "Even in the most cooperative groups, members compete with one another for limited resources, mates, status, alliances, and influence" (Dewall). The image below illustrates the in-group. Also feelings of a threat will affect a person's motivation. When someone's identity is under attack they may respond by exerting more effort or withdrawing from the situation completely. In our case study we examine these theories as we discuss a company's merger, and facing some resistance and group identity problems.

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A company with 4 large manufacturing locations (hereinafter referred to as Company C), and approximately 2,000 employees was acquired by another firm (hereinafter referred to as Company A) in 1996.  Company A was much larger, with 9 manufacturing locations and more than 5,000 employees.  The information technology groups in each company were very dissimilar, but in a quite interesting dynamic, Company C had a centralized  IT organization which was considered cutting edge, and years ahead of the acquiring company in terms of the business systems and technology in the company.  For this reason, the leadership of the merged company made a business decision to leverage the centralized IT organization of Company C to lead the combined IT groups in the deployment of a standard business system.  This business decision was quite shocking to all members of the IT groups in both companies.
The CIO and his overall leadership team for the combined IT organization were all named quickly, each coming from a prior leadership role in Company C.  This group set about planning the 2-year project required to deploy a common business system, all the hardware and software, and implement staffing needs to support it long-term.  There was an almost immediate “intergroup threat”  (PSU, 2012) response from members of the IT organization in Company A.  The response was not surprising given the fact that no one in "Company A's" existing IT organization was in a leadership role in the combined organization, and all the technology was foreign to this team.  Although the decision to award the leadership roles to the selected individuals was based on well-documented capabilities, experience and prior performance, it nevertheless resulted in an immediate "In-Group" (PSU, 2012) and "Out-Group" (PSU, 2012) segregation of the organization, split between the members of the former company IT organizations.  A "legitimizing myth" (PSU, 2012) existed in this scenario, whereby members of the Company A team felt their lack of direct experience and knowledge in the business system created a bias against them from company leadership and other members of the information technology organization. 
Much of 1996 was spent addressing employee issues related to the perceived threat for job security felt by employees of Company A.    Some of the issues manifested themselves in large meetings where several members of the “out-group” (Company A IT group) would challenge the authority and decision-making of the “in-group” (new CIO and his leadership team) on behalf of “their” plants and management teams.   Over time, that strategy began to fail, as other leaders in the company management organization became comfortable with the plans and leadership of the combined IT organization.
In 1997, the actual deployments began at individual manufacturing locations.  As each deployment occurred, members of the Company A  Information Technology organization were trained and participated in the system deployment at their site.  As each of them became a trained and knowledgeable resource in the technology, they were asked to assist in the planning and deployment of systems at the next locations.  This practice (developed by the CIO to aid in smoothing the transition for all) was a key enabler in resolving intergroup conflict, because the Company A team members became part of the IT system solution, and were helpful in smoothing the path with other members of the “old” Company A organization.  As the "personal threat"  (PSU, 2012) was reduced for individuals in the "Company A" technology organization, the overall organization saw a positive shift in group dynamics.  The overall project was successful in the end, and the result was an integrated Information Technology group with cutting edge business systems, but the path to that destination was not an easy road.

Case Study Recommendation

Company leadership could have reduced the amount of intergroup conflict through the application of Social Dominance Theory, by recognizing the potential for members of both groups to have a strong group orientation to their former IT organization membership.  "The general idea of Social Dominance Theory is that all people belong to groups and each group provides for the individuals that belong to the group.  As such, people are motivated to protect the group." (PSU, 2012.)  Had this been recognized earlier, the leadership team could have taken steps to mitigate the amount of time it took to engage the group members from Company A in the planning activities, as well as providing training opportunities much earlier in the project.


Integrated Threat Theory
A theory built recently on the foundations of intergroup interactions and relationships, the basis of this theory is that people may perceive a threat in order to be motivated. They can receive this threat in different relationships, either as a personal threat - which is when a person perceives their own identity or safety or resources are being attacked, intergroup threat - which is when one group attacks or intimidates another, threatening their resources and/or well-being, and lastly there is the situation of no threat - which is actually very positive; in the absence of perceived threat, people tend to work collaboratively and effectively together for common interests and success (PSU, 2012).
We can see this theory addressed in the case study. Intergroup threat existed as company A’s IT jobs were perceived to be at risk because of company C’s selected system and expertise. Company A’s employees lost power, resources, and they hoped not to lose their jobs after the merger.
Social Dominance Theory

This theory states simply “People are always motivated to protect the group” (PSU, 2012). As humans, we like structure and hierarchies and according to this theory we act in ways that will protect this structure and dynamic in most cases, of the groups to which we belong.
In our case study, we notice that company A was trying hard to protect it’s group when it came under threat. By throwing company C under the bus and trying to sabotage their work and influence, company A were operating under the social dominance theory; they had a larger, structured group before C came along, see themselves as higher status as a result, and so work in ways that interest their own team. 

There are three group-based hierarchies based on age, gender, and arbitrary circumstances. It is named the trimorphic structure of group-based hierarchies. Differences in age, gender, and individual values are likely to cause a separation between people. These differences do not completely prevent certain people from achieving success, but can impose complications that prevent an organization from fair conduct.  

Intergroup Bias
This is one of the consequences of becoming a group; you are biased toward your group ‘ in-group favoritism’ and attack those not in it ‘out-group derogation’ (PSU, 2012).  Essentially what is happening is those in the group identify themselves and their success with the group and so they behave in ways that will favor the entire group. They will rate their peers better and have a greater sense of influence and confidence within this group and so they will act to protect that ‘we are the best’ mentality. Out-group derogation means to put-down those who do not belong to the group, take away from their potential success and generally rate them negatively.  "Sometimes interactions wiht outgroup members are awkward, full of tension and miscommunication, and ultimately propel individuals farther away from rather than closer to the outgroup.  Indeed, individuals may flee intergroup contact situations at their earliest opportunity.  In other cases, exchanges with outgroup members are positive in nature yet do not result in a more favorable stance toward other members of the outgroup." (Hodson, Hewstone, 2012.) 
In our study, we see that company A really believed themselves to be better, even in the face of managerial decisions to go with company C’s team and system. This links somewhat to social dominance theory, in that the in-group bias led to the attempted discrediting of the C team - which is out-group derogation.  "The term intergroup relations  refers to the ways in which people perceive, think about, feel about, act towards, and react to others on the basis of different social group memberships.  Intergroup relations are based on feelings of collective identity." (Levine, 2012.)

Social Identity Theory

 The belief that part of one’s identity comes from membership with a particular group (PSU, 2012). For example, this could be a religious group, a sports team, the school you attend, the area in which you live. Part of who you are you could amount to the influence and membership of theses groups. This theory also states that intergroup bias only occurs under threat conditions (PSU, 2012), and otherwise this situation can create a very cooperative and unified group that can work well to achieve goals. Social identity theory (SIT) has both positive and negative aspects that help explain group identity and threat theories. This method is easy to apply to people and it makes sense that they would strive to protect their identity. SIT has received much support and describes how groups can interfere with ones identity. A negative view on SIT is that it is hard to prove or understand why people are motivated in certain ways. Because everyone has different values this method can vary from person to person. Also, people might act in ways that does not protect their identity as they imagined it would. 
In our example, we can see how the members of each company have strengthened their sense of group ID and the threat of the other group has caused a threat condition. The goal that followed was to morph the two teams into one so that the intergroup bias can benefit the company rather than tear the IT team apart. Ultimately, in this situation, it appeared to work out that the two teams were able to merge as one and as a result both were more successful than one team could have been alone. 


Legitimizing Myths

This is in essence, the case whereby if people know that certain behaviors are generally acceptable and rewarding, they will accept it as a rule and behave accordingly, as it serves as a demonstration (PSU, 2012). We tend to focus on things that serve us or limit us, so these myths can have substantial power if applied in the right circumstance.
In our case study; team A suffered from the effects of a legitimized myth. They thought that their lack of experience with the technology platform the merged company was going to use would put them at a severe disadvantage and so this would be considered a hierarchy-enhancing legitimizing myth. Their focus on their lack of ability, rather than what they brought to the team put them into the threat condition that made them feel they were going to lose their jobs. This belief did not serve them well!

Image source blog at PSU


The Company A, Company C case study is a representation of 'intergroup threat theory', 'social dominance' and 'social identity'. We see throughout the description that neither company wanted to work in harmony to start with - they went into threat mode. This would have increased and exaggerated any previous social identity each group had developed within itself, and so the play for social dominance began. Finally management intervened and had the two teams follow programs that brought them together rather than pitting them against each other, this finally brought to an end the in-group and out-group competition and allowed the factions to unite, influence, and support each other in a way that was beneficial for the entire organization.

This case does provide good examples of how individuals in an organization can form a very strong social identity with a workgroup, and how that social identity can form the basis for their individual actions.  Applying this theory to organizational management activities can assist work groups in avoiding the type of conflict noted in the case study, if only leadership members can recognize and constructively deal with the strong social identities which are present.  The case study demonstrates a simple technique employed by leadership (create a different social identity for members of Company A by making them part of the "new" solution) and much of the intergroup conflict is resolved without other special intervention.  Having individuals emotionally invested in the solution caused a shift in their group social identity - and enhanced their individual self-esteem at the same time.  Sometimes a simple approach works best. 


Dewall, Nathan. The Oxford Handbook of Social Exclusion. Oxford University Press, eBook. < 

Hodson, Gordon; Hewston, Miles (2012).  Advances in Intergroup Contact, p. 23.  Retrieved from:

Levine, John M. (2012). Group Processes, p. 323, Retrieved from: 

Penn State University, 2012. Psych484 Work Attitudes and Motivation, Lesson 8

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