The Most Dangerous Four-Letter Word

Marissa Levin
Marissa Levin
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How many times a day do you mindlessly look at others that are different than you with a “THEM” frame of mind? This could apply to people who look differently, perform different jobs, practice different religions, engage in different hobbies, or any other type of difference. We probably all do it without being aware of it. Even though I strive to come to all experiences and people with an open mind, a blank canvass, and free of judgment, human nature causes all of us to evaluate those that we see based on societal prejudices that seep into our subconscious.

 I hadn’t given the concept of THEM much thought until I came across an article that profiled Dick Simon, a real estate developer, photographer, and social enterprise philanthropist committed to breaking down the most impenetrable cultural barriers and dangerous stereotypes in a quest to achieve greater world peace.  Dick’s photographs and personal accounts from Syria, North Korea, Iran, Israel/Palestine and elsewhere have appeared in the Boston Globe, NPR/PBS, the Huffington Post, and other major media.  

 He has given presentations, using his images and stories to enhance awareness and educate at TEDx, Harvard, Tufts, Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO) Chapters around the world, museums, and a variety of religious, community and business organizations. He is co-Founder and Chair of the YPO Peace Action Network (PAN), engaging over 21,000 business leaders in 135 countries, utilizing their unique expertise, relationships and resources to make a difference globally.

 Why is the concept of Us-Versus-Them so dangerous? “We label others as THEM rather than doing the hard work of trying to garner a more nuanced understanding of complex situations…..We stereotype others as THEM to rationalize our own behavior,” says Simon.

 On a geopolitical scale, he says, “THEMification” helps explain the frequent failure of peace talks. After all, how could we ever negotiate with THEM, who are always out to destroy us? On a personal scale THEMification allows us to escape responsibility and accountability in our relationships with our spouse / partner / coworker / boss / child / friend.”

 From a leadership and organizational culture perspective, I believe THEMification can damage organizational progress. Reaching back into my own 20 years of business-building experience, and through my coaching with so many CEOs and organizations, the THEM mentality prevents leaders and employees from having difficult and completely honest conversations. The silos that divide organizations into executive versus non-executive functions, business units, functional units, etc., naturally create an Us-Versus-Them environment that hinders trust, communication, and employee engagement.  When I think back to how we’ve designed our Information Experts offices over the years, I can see unconscious divisions that occurred as a result of how we organized our space. 

 From a customer relationship perspective, it may be easy to fall into the Us-Versus-Them mindset. We are trying to sell to THEM. That is the natural thought process. The next time you are meeting with a customer or prospect, try to adapt the US mentality – that everyone is aligned on the same side of the table, unified with the same goals, rather than divided. 

 How can we diffuse the overarching Us-Versus-Them mentality? Simon tells us “the key is to become conscious of our stereotypes and biases, be curious about the other’s narrative, be compassionate as we seek to break a lifetime pattern, and challenge ourselves, media, and others when THEMification occurs.” 

 Consider the possibilities on a global level if we all paused to view THEM as US. As always, our greatest desired change begins with ourselves. 

 For more information on THEMification and Dick’s transformational work, please visit and

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