Getting from “Us and Them” to “You and Me”

August 19, 2011

I’ve been reading about category-based models of group contact in a paper by Gaertner and Dovidio (Reducing Intergroup Conflict: From Superordinate Goals to Decategorization, Recategorization, and Mutual Differentiation). It’s good stuff if you are interested in strategies for breaking down the barriers between silos. As they lay out in the title, there are three principle models for resolving group conflict:

  • decategorization
  • recategorization
  • mutual differentiation

Decategorization involves getting people in groups focused on group membership and their common attributes as members of a group, to move their focus someplace else. It could be that they pay more attention to their own individual needs, or perhaps they focus on a different set of attributes that cuts across the group they are a member of and the “other” group. For instance, if I’m in a political rally (Democrats and Republicans, whatever…) and someone makes an appeal to me to, “Ask not what my country can do for me, but for what I can do for my country.” The emphasis of that speech focuses on my own contribution as an individual. With that change in focus, perhaps I think of myself along the lines of an individual with something to contribute and perhaps less as a member of a group with a specific agenda.

Another example of decategorization might be to start with a pair of opposed groups (Scrum Masters, and PMPs?) and ask them to identify things they have in common. Find out how many in the group are sailors. Ask them to share their sailing stories. Create bonds across a dimension that is orthogonal to the dimension of conflict between the two groups. If it’s a political conflict, find out if there are folks who love golf, or movies, or baseball – anything the groups have in common.

According to Gaertner and Dovidio, to insure that decategorization takes place, there are a few prerequisites:

  • Equal status between the groups
  • Some level of cooperative intergroup interaction
  • Opportunities for “self revealing personal acquaintance”

So it’s probably reasonable to assume that decategorization as it is outlined here won’t work well for entrenched groups in severe conflict. I guess that means I can’t use it with my relatives…

So what about recategorization? Recategorization is similar to decategorization in that we are once again going to appeal to people to find cross cutting similarities in their group memberships. However unlike decategorization, which tends to focus on the small things we may share in common, recategorization focuses on higher order group membership. If we are members of different departments in conflict (oh, say Dev and Ops) then we can appeal to the fact that we all work for the same company. We all share the same customers, and so on. To quote Gaertner and Dovidio,

“…the idea [is] that a person’s potential in-groups can vary hierarchically in inclusiveness (e.g. from one’s family to one’s neighborhood, to one’s city, to one’s nation, to all of humankind)”

-p. 102

So what if neither decategorization or recategorization ring your particular bell? Fortunately we have one more categorization tool at our disposal and that is mutual differentiation. The idea with mutual differentiation is that rather than trying to reduce the differences between two groups, we instead emphasize their differences and their cooperative interdependence. Rather than de-emphasize differences, we celebrate them. We talk with honesty and integrity about the strengths of the two groups and we also make sure that we are keeping a focus on the fact that they groups still need each other. It sort of feels like an appreciative inquiry approach for working with inter group conflict.

So there you have it: three models for managing group conflict. I’d recommend the Gaertner and Dovidio paper highly, there are lots of good ideas in it. They actually go further in the paper and suggest that not only are these three models useful on their own, but you can also combine them and use them in sequence! Perhaps more on that later…

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.

XP2011 – Taking Silo Busting to Madrid

May 4, 2011

Lourdes Vidueira and I have taken the “Silo Busting” presentation that I’ve been doing for about the last two years and we have rather dramatically expanded it into a full 4 hour tutorial session for XP2011. A tremendous amount of research has gone into building this material and I have to say that I’m very excited with what we have put together. Managing conflicts between organizational silos is the very definition of a wicked problem that is rife with complexity (and usually comes with a healthy dollop of chaos on top). These sorts of problems require a multi-disciplinary approach in order to effectively deal with them. Some of those disciplines include:

  • Sociology (in-group & out-group formation)
  • Psychology (hierarchies, biases & discrimination, personality, group formation)
  • Conflict management (conflict models, personality)
  • Leadership (personality, hierarchy, vision)
  • Organizational Development (vision, organizational structure)

And I’m sure there are even more. Many of these domains overlap and reinforce the other. Like I’ve mentioned, I’m pretty tickled with what we have come up with and I’m looking forward to sharing it with a group of really motivated people. Of course the setting for the conference, Madrid, is going to be fabulous. It looks like there are a lot of great sessions in the program and I will be sure to keep folks posted on the stuff that I attend.

If you are going to be attending, make sure to check out the Silo Busting tutorial on Friday – We’re hoping to make it one of the highlights of the conference!

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.

Silo Busting Strategy #1: Understand the Problem Deeply

January 7, 2011

All too often, when we are working with another group their behavior can appear mysterious and difficult to explain. Frequently this is an indication that they are grappling with issues or problems that are not immediately visible to you as an outsider. One classic example is goal setting. While goal setting within groups or divisions is quite common, those groups do not share division specific goals with other groups within the organization. The failure to reconcile the often different and frequently competing goals between different groups in an organization is often the source of many misunderstandings.

So what can we do about this sort of misalignment? First, we can attempt to find out what the goals of the group are. Knowing group goals will help you understand what is motivating the decisions and processes that a group uses. It will also reveal opportunities to support those goals. That kind of understanding will carry us a long way toward building the kinds of organizational bridges that we need to create in order to begin breaking down silos.

We must understand the struggles that the group is dealing with. Is the group short-staffed? Do they have problem people whom they constantly struggle with? Are they learning to cope with a new system? Are they struggling to carry out a complex project? These sorts of issues are the types of problems that cause teams to change their processes and behaviors, often in a defensive reaction to the challenges that they face. Understand the problems, and you can often better understand the behavior surrounding it. Better yet, by understanding the problem you might be in a position to help them address the issue. Help them address the issue, and you will have gone a long ways toward opening new doors between your groups. It is actually a case of impediment removal applied to the organization as opposed to just the team.

If you are looking for a tool to help you accomplish this sort of organizational archeology, I have had some good success using root cause analysis. The application of structured thinking and problem solving techniques can help to sort out areas of opportunity for helping another group slay the dragons that plague them.