Business rarely pauses to take breath and when change happens it can often occur at lighting speed throwing up unexpected challenges. A sudden acquisition can mean that today’s competitor will be tomorrow’s colleague. A change in business model could result in a long-standing rival emerging as the perfect joint venture partner. A seemingly straightforward company restructure can lead to the merging of departments that previously didn't see eye to eye.
Marriages like these can be challenging at the best of times. Even more so if those concerned have previously gone to great lengths to differentiate themselves from an adversary that they now find to be an associate. So when a wedding of opponents occurs what can be done to encourage people to accept former rivals as part of the new family? And how might they be persuaded to cooperate with new colleagues, work collaboratively and embrace joint efforts?
One potential answer comes from another group notorious for their fierce rivalries - sports fans.
Rivalry and competitiveness is par-for-the-course in sport. It’s something that pretty much every fan recognizes with the fiercest of cases reserved for the longest standing of foes. Think the Yankees and the Red Sox. The Celtics and the Lakers. The Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers.
Such can be the intensity that it’s hard to imagine that rivals like these would be willing to co-operate on anything. But a wonderful series of studies by British psychologist Mark Levine suggests that even in the most extreme of cases there are some things that bind rather than divide us.
Levine first asked a group of English soccer fans, who happened to be staunch Manchester United supporters, to complete a questionnaire asking them to write down what they liked about their team. After completing the questionnaire, they were then asked to walk to another building on the University campus to take part in the next stage of the study. En route to the building, the Manchester United supporters would witness a passing jogger (who was actually part of the study) tripping over and supposedly injuring themselves. Sometimes the injured jogger would be wearing a plain white shirt and at others he would be wearing a Manchester United football shirt.
On a third occasion the jogger would be wearing (rather bravely in my opinion) the shirt of Manchester United’s fiercest rival, Liverpool football club.
Strategically placed observers, clipboards at the ready, stood by to count how many of the Manchester United supporters stopped and helped. It turns out that, if you go out jogging and are unlucky enough to sustain an injury, the shirt you are wearing can have a pretty big influence over whether you receive any help. In the study, about a third of the Manchester United supporters stopped to help when the injured jogger wore the plain white t-shirt. As you would have guessed, when they saw that the injured party was one of their own and wearing a Manchester United shirt, the overwhelming majority helped.
But what happened when the jogger wore the shirt of rival club Liverpool? Unsurprisingly, very few Manchester United fans stopped to help; providing good evidence of people’s tendency to help most those they see as belonging to their immediate in-group.
Happily though, people aren't typically so narrow-minded that they can’t be persuaded to be more accommodating with those that they initially see as outsiders. When the study was repeated and Manchester United supporters were first asked what they liked about being football supporters rather than just what they liked about their team, they were twice as likely to help someone wearing a rival shirt.
So the lesson here seems to be that when it comes to encouraging cooperation and partnership, focusing on super-ordinate goals and objectives becomes important. As a result, managers and leaders looking to encourage an atmosphere of cooperation and support among their teams would be advised to take extra time to focus attention on the things that their teams share. On what binds, rather than divides them.
But although there can be no doubting people’s fundamental motive to affiliate and associate with others, people also want to act in ways that signal their individuality. Typically we want to ‘fit-in’ and ‘stand-out’ at the same time.
So is there a way to for us to maximize the favorable impact of similarities and at the same time signal our individuality? Yes.
Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of Business and author of the acclaimed bestseller Give and Take suggests an alternative solution that requires a simple shift in the type of commonality that is worth focusing on.
Instead of asking people to focus on the similarities that they share with new colleagues, new teams and new department members that are common to most, he instead advises that uncommon commonalities are identified and highlighted. That is, the features that they share in common with a new colleague but that are rare to other external groups. Identifying these uncommon commonalities, especially early in the process of relationship building, potentially fulfills people’s desire to both to fit in, and yet, stand out (in this case, from other competitive groups) at the same time.
Whether it is a simple department restructure or the merging of two industry giants, it takes time for the dusts of change to settle. It seems that the act of encouraging newly formed team members to actively seek out examples of ‘uncommon commonalities’, while small, could prove to be an important activity that speeds up rather slows down cooperation, collaboration and partnership.
What uncommon commonalities did you discover that you shared with either an individual or group and what impact did it have?
Levine, M., Prosser, A., Evans, D. & Reicher, S. (2005) Identity and Emergency Intervention: How Social Group Membership and Inclusiveness of Group Boundaries Shapes Helping Behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 443-453.
Grant, A. (2013) Give and Take – A Revolutionary Approach to Success. New York: Viking