Leadership Is A Weak Social Force

August 15, 2011

In the “Robbers Cave Experiment” Sherif speculates that focusing on leadership to reconcile the differences between two groups is insufficient. I would even go so far as to characterize it as a “weak” type of social interaction that is not enough to counteract the “strong” social dynamics at play when there is conflict between two groups.

“Likewise, the alternative that exclusively emphasizes the role of leaders in charge misses the mark, because the effectiveness of leaders, even though weighty, is not unlimited. Leaders are not immune to influences coming from the rank and file, once a group trend gets rolling, even though initially the leaders might have been largely responsible for starting the trend.”

(Sherif, Harvey, White, Hood, & Sherif, The Robbers Cave Experiment, 1988 p.151)

Simply put, exhortations by leaders to “get along” or to aspire to some higher social imperative like “cooperation” just can’t compete with the hatreds and biases (both I would argue are “strong” forces) that arise from inter group conflict.

This implies that if we are going to resolve a conflict between two groups, reconciling the leaders of the two groups with each other is not sufficient to resolve the conflict. This presumes that there is already a significant level of conflict. There has to be something more than just leadership: in Sherif’s case he recommends the creation of multiple overlapping superordinate goals.

In fact, the Robber’s Cave Experiment flips the whole equation on its head and implies, if not outright asks, the reverse question: can we reconcile two groups if the leaders of those groups do not cooperate with each other at all? Is it enough to simply put the superordinate goals in place without obtaining the cooperation of the team leadership? This is what Sherif is actually able to successfully accomplish in his experiment (which makes it all the more astonishing in my opinion).

All of this poses interesting questions about the role of leadership in reconciling inter group conflict. Can leaders actually control the tiger they hold by the tail? Sherif suggests they can’t. Keep that in mind the next time you are dealing with organizational silos. Don’t get stuck in the trap of thinking that if the leadership could just get along, that the situation would resolve itself. It very likely would not. Once two groups really polarize – when they really start to hate each other, then leadership isn’t enough. Just look at our recent debt ceiling fiasco in congress.

I rest my case.

Breaking Down Silos

May 1, 2011

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.

Dueling Silos

April 29, 2011

In Forming Silos, I reviewed the Robbers Cave Experiment and how they tried to create silos as part of their research on in-group and out-group conflict. In this post, I want to review stage two of the experiment, where the intent is to create conflict between the two newly created silos.

On the face of it, creating tension between two groups is so easy it’s almost embarrassing. All the researchers did was create a series of winner take all challenges for the two groups to compete in. Then, to aggravate the situation, they subtly manipulated the scoring so that each side would cheated out of a win. Of course, back in the 1950’s this was a relatively novel idea. Now we have reality TV and we call it ‘Survivor’. The difference the Robbers Cave experiment and ‘Survivor’ was that in the case of Robbers Cave, nobody is voted off the island.

The challenges were the sorts of games and other activities that you would commonly find in summer camp: baseball games, football games, tent pitching competitions, tug o’ War, cabin inspections, skits and songs, treasure hunts, and so forth. The emphasis was on keeping the competition as realistic as possible. I think the importance of keeping the setting as natural as possible was critical to the success of the experiment. They did not want the boys to feel like they were being manipulated or observed by the camp counselors/researchers (even though that is exactly what was happening). So rather than setting up artificial challenges, the researchers went to great lengths to make sure that the challenges were appropriate to the setting. In fact, the researchers were so concerned about this that they repeated the study on at least two different previous occasions before getting it right on the third try. That sort of persistence is particularly impressive, given the enormous investment in time and resources required to put together a large experiment like this.

So we have the two groups competing against one another for scarce resources (various and sundry trophies, flags and other rewards). In very short order the two groups not only hate each other, but they are getting into name calling and fist fights and refusing to go anywhere near each other. They go so far as to raid each other’s cabins, wreaking havoc, and stealing things from ‘the enemy’ team. By the end of this phase, we have two groups that well and truly hate each other. They exhibit all of the territoriality and biases that characterize a pair of badly dysfunctional silos. Furthermore, they manage to accomplish this in less than a week. Apparently, it does not take very long to create a dysfunctional group.

As in the previous stage of the experiment, the researchers had a few hypothesis about what might happen in stage two when the competition was introduced. Their first theory was that competition would increase the in-group solidarity of the two teams. This makes sense, when we are competing against some outside enemy, you would expect it to tighten the interpersonal bonds within your own group. In fact that’s exactly what happened in this case. The teams became more tightly knit in the face of competition from another group. To use a cliché, each group closed ranks in the face of danger.

Another hypothesis was that the functional relationships between the two groups would affect the relationships within each individual group. This is a little hard to sort out, but as I understand it, what this means is that if things are going poorly for your group in the competition between your two teams, it is very likely that there may be a change in leadership for your group. I’ve seen this happen before in competing teams. The tension and the friction that builds up between the two groups eventually leads to one group looking, at least temporarily, like the “winner” and the losing group may reorganize itself in the face of their own perceived leadership failure. I do not think this necessarily alleviates the problem in any manifest way, but it does follow that the intergroup relations reflect on the relations of people within each group.

The final hypothesis is the one that I find the most worrisome of the bunch. Basically, in a group conflict, the theory is that low status members of either group will be more likely to act out violently in deed and word than higher status members of the group in order to to improve their own status within the group. Therefore, not only do you have the inter-group conflict going on, but you also have people within each group who are trying to take advantage of that conflict in order to advance their own status within each group. How do they try to change their status? By being the loudest voices to demonize the other group. They do accomplish their ends by actively provoking conflict between the two groups. This of course just serves to further aggravate the tensions already present between the two groups. At this point, the conflict has becomes self-perpetuating.

If we stopped the experiment here, I think that there are many people who might just say, “You see? I told you so. People are just nasty and brutish.” There certainly were those who only seemed capable of reading to this point in the study and deciding that it confirmed all of their worst stereotypes of human behavior. However, the experiment doesn’t not stop here. This is still the setup for what is perhaps the most interesting phase of the experiment – the stage where they introduce the strategies they used to reconcile the two groups. The story of how they managed to re-integrate the two groups and achieve real collaboration is truly remarkable.

Forming Silos

April 26, 2011

As part of my research for our Silo Busting tutorial at XP2010, I’m reading “The Robbers Cave Experiment: Intergroup conflict and cooperation” by Muzafer Sherif et. al. I first heard about this experiment from Linda Rising (one of my all time favorite speakers and writers) who used it as the topic for a great presentation that she gave at the Agile2008 conference. Her presentation made a big impression on me, so much so that I found myself ordering the book about the study. The Robbers Cave Experiment is a classic experiment in social psychology from the 1950s that has profound implications for the way that organizations work together today.

[One tiny little caveat here: this is a social psychology study from the fifties. At the time, psychology was, and some would say still is, struggling to be taken seriously as a science. As a result, in general the published papers are God-awful dry and boring. I mean make-a-grown-man-cry-for-mercy boring. That way they seem more scientific! You have been warned.]

The purpose of the experiment was to explore how social groups form, how they come into conflict, and to experiment with means of resolving inter-group conflict. The subjects of this experiment were two groups of 12-year-old boys who were going to a summer camp at the Robbers Cave State park in Oklahoma. This study took place in the late forties and early 1950s, back in the day when there was a lot more latitude with selecting and experimenting with human subjects.

[OK, another digression: researchers got to do the coolest stuff to people in the late forties and early fifties! They got away with all sorts of crazy experiments back then (see Zimbardo’s Prisoner experiment). Ah the good old days…we can’t torture people in experimental psychology the way we used to. Amateur hour is over. Now we leave torture to the professionals: the military.]

The boys (or subjects – see how scientific that sounds?) were carefully screened for selection for this summer camp. They had to pass a battery of psychological tests and meet specific criteria in order to take part in the experiment. The goal was to select from a population that didn’t have a background of disturbed family histories, large differences in social background or other dramatic differences that might cause confounds in the experimental design.

The first phase of the experiment was an exercise in-group formation. The researchers needed to create some silos in order to test their hypothesis about breaking them down. The boys were taken to campsites and proceeded to play games, go exploring, and generally go about the process of forming, storming, and norming that all teams go through – even teams of 12-year-old boys.

There are some interesting hypotheses that the researchers had about this first phase of the experiment:

  1. That hierarchies will form
  2. That your place in the hierarchy affects your own assessment of your own performance as well as that of others
  3. That members of groups will adopt the “norms” of the group and doggedly stick to those norms in the face of conflicting evidence.

I find these notions very intriguing to us as Agile practitioners. First, I think at its heart many of the Agile methods are rooted in egalitarian notions of communal leadership and are fairly antithetical to the idea of command and control. So, it seems to me that hierarchies, at least the way that I’m used to thinking of them, are generally considered a bad thing from an Agile perspective. This experiment theorizes that given our natural inclinations, the hierarchy is the default organizational structure for people (well, for 12 year old boys anyway). The results support this theory. My gut reaction: that is a major bummer.

Maybe not all is lost though. Perhaps the hierarchy is a default place to start absent any other influences, but evolution can take place. Perhaps it is evolution toward a more communal, collaborative style of group? I don’t know. I’m certainly not an expert in this field, but I find it fascinating and somewhat frustrating that hierarchy seems to be the default choice. Of course, when talking about silos, it’s hard not to refer to hierarchies. They seem to go hand in hand.

The next theory was that your place in the hierarchy would affect how you perceive your own performance and the performance of others. It turns out that we tend to overestimate the performance of those who are higher than us in the hierarchy and to underestimate the performance of people who are lower than us in the hierarchy. So does this imply that we tend to think that the boss is a genius and that the people who work for us are idiots? Ouch! Sherif and his researchers tested this and found that indeed, we do tend to overestimate the abilities of those higher up in the pecking order and underestimate the abilities of those beneath us. Keep that in mind the next time you are talking to the boss!

Finally, the members of the group came to “normalize” their assessments of conditions to match those of the group they were in. So independently, you might tell me that you prefer green, but if the group prefers blue, then guess what? You are going to start reporting that you prefer blue too. It’s all part of fitting into the group. One interesting observation was that members of a group frequently reported themselves as “working harder” than outside groups – even when there was no evidence to support this claim. I’ve certainly seen plenty of that when working with high tech groups and teams.

The rest of the study is equally, if not even more fascinating in its theories and its conclusions. This research, whether or not you agree with it, has some profound things to say about the way that human beings work in teams – and the dramatic effect teams have on our individual judgement. I found many parallels in the study with the teams that I have worked with (agile or not). It’s dry, academic stuff, but if you are at all interested in the way that teams form, fight and resolve, it is pure gold.