Breaking Down Silos

In the first two stages of our story of the Robbers Cave experiment we have explored how in-groups or silos are formed and how they can come into conflict. In the final stage of the experiment we learn how Sherif and his fellow researchers attempted to reconcile the conflict and defuse the tensions between the two groups. The third phase really gets at how we resolve conflicts between different groups. Everything else done in this experiment up to this point has been a setup for this phase.

The first thing to note is that the researchers considered a variety of different possible solutions that they could bring to bear in attempting to resolve the conflict between the two groups. As they outline it, they saw the following options:

  1. The appeal to a “common enemy” – when the study was first performed in 1949 they had used this appeal to try and bring the two groups together, but they were not satisfied with the results. They felt that using a common enemy as a tool to bring two groups together only serves to widen the conflict by introducing conflict with a third party. This sort of defeats the purpose of the study. The groups stop fighting each other only to start fighting with another.
  2. Disintegrating the two groups by focusing on the “shining” individual – This usually occurs at the expense of other individuals and the researchers felt that anything that brought about the disintegration of the groups again defeated the purpose of the study. The porpose of the study was to look for a way to defuse the tension between the two groups without destroying either group.
  3. Using “leadership” as a tool to bring the two groups together – The researchers felt that this approach would not work. They felt that leadership, while important in starting off a conflict, is really too weak a force in the social dynamic to have a significant impact on the direction of the group once the conflict really gets going. They felt that appeals to leadership would be ineffective very quickly after the groups came into conflict. In essence, leadership may influence the initial direction of a conflict, but once that steamroller gets going, leadership is too weak a social influence to stop it.
  4. Introducing common superordinate goals – goals that are important to and shared by the two groups but cannot be achieved by either group on its own. This is the option that they chose to test as the primary mechanism for resolving the conflict between the two groups.
  5. Contact as equals – this theory is that if the two groups can be brought together into contact with each other in situations where they are equals, that the contact alone will help to reduce the conflict between the groups.

It was the last two methods that the researchers resolved to put to the test. The Sherif and company didn’t seem to have a lot of faith in the Contact as Equals idea, but they felt that it was commonly held and practiced enough that it deserved some consideration. With that in mind, they setup multiple pre-arranged contact situations for the teams and looked to see if there was a significant change in the tensions between the two groups. Long story short – no. In fact, the researchers felt so strongly that this wasn’t the right approach that they set a hypothesis for this stage that stated:

“It is predicted that the contact phase in itself will not produce marked decrease in the state of tension between the two groups.” p.160

I guess that means that getting people from competing groups in the same room isn’t enough. Even if you do it a lot. The researchers in the Sherif experiment did, and apparently it had no effect – as predicted. So they didn’t have a lot of faith in this approach, but they gave it a shot.

The approach that they really liked was the solution that employed superordinate goals. As they put it in the study:

“When groups in a state of friction are brought into contact under conditions embodying superordinate goals, the attainment of which is compelling but which cannot be achieved by the efforts of one group alone, the groups will tend to cooperate toward the common goal.” p. 161

To test this hypothesis the researchers arranged for the following kinds of challenges:

  1. The Drinking Water Problem
  2. The Problem of Securing a Movie
  3. Campout at Cedar Lake
  4. Tug of War Against the Truck
  5. Meal Preparation
  6. Tent Pitching
  7. A Trip to the Border

I won’t go into the details of each story. A couple of things are apparent from this experiment. First, you can’t just do this once and have everybody walk away happy. Finding a single superordinate goal is not enough. I’ve seen this in practice too. I’ve been in situations where there were teams/silos in conflict and a situation arose where there was a superordinate goal. Everybody worked together to solve the problem, and then they went right back to their problem behaviors when the goal was resolved. What we see here is that their needs to be more than one superordinate goal in order for lasting changes to be made. At least that’s my hypothesis.

In the end, the two groups are reconciled. They become so tight that they start to blur the lines between the two groups. Rather than avoid each other, now they insist on including each other in activities. They even go so far as to sacrifice things so that they can include others from the previous “enemy” team. It’s a dramatic example of breaking down silos.

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