Monday, July 24, 2006

1954 Psychology Experiment Provides Clues for Cooperative Work Among Distributed Work Environments

Both large and small companies are moving toward more distributed workforces. A small juice company was recently touted in Business 2.0 Magazine for having growers in California and Mexico, processing in Washington, bottlers in California, warehouse in Wisconsin, customer service in Philippines, accounting in India and headquarters in San Francisco. I can remember back in the early 1990s when the then CEO of Verifone, Hatim Tyabji, was an early proponent of having employees working across the globe. He called his company a 24-hour a day organization because at any time of day or night there were employees working in one time zone or another. Of course today this is very common.

There are of course both benefits and drawbacks to this arrangement. Much has been written about both the pros and the cons. On the plus side you have local expertise and cost effective wages. On the downside you hear about problems related to geographic distance and miscommunications. One drawback to the distributed workforce that you don't read much about is the negative competition that is formed between workgroups that can literally destroy a company or project.

To better understand how competition plays out among groups, we can look to the 1954 experiment conducted by psychologist Muzafer Sherif. In this study, called the Robbers Cave experiment, two groups of 12 year old boys were sent to summer camp. The boys were of similar race, religion, temperament and socio-economic background. Each group was sent to a different part of the camp and each group did not know of the other's existence.

After a short time had passed, each group developed its own social structure and friendships were formed. The researchers then brought the two groups together and had them compete against each other in a tournament with various physical and mental challenges. Almost immediately, derogatory name calling began between the groups. Losses were blamed on unfair conditions. After one particular defeat the losing team raided the other team's camp while they were sleeping. The victimized group reciprocated "turning over beds, scattering dirt and possessions, and then returned to their cabin where they entrenched and prepared weapons (socks filled with rocks) for a possible return raid." Even after the tournament was finished, the boys continued their hostility toward each other (including a messy food fight) during non competitive interactions.

To try and reduce the friction, the researchers engineered some new tasks that required the boys to work cooperatively for their mutual benefit. The water supply to the camp was cutoff, a movie was offered that the camp said they couldn't afford and a broken down truck was left on-site that needed to be tugged out with a tug-of-war rope. The boys worked together to solve these problems and miraculously after a number of these cooperative tasks accummulated, the social structure adapted. The name calling ceased. Boys from one team formed pairs of friendship with boys from the other team. At the end of the camp session, the boys even asked if they could all travel home together on the same bus instead of on the two busses that they came in on. To top it all off, as the bus stopped for refreshments on the way home, the winning team used the money they had won from the tournament to buy milkshakes for everyone.

So how can we apply the message of this study to today's distributed workforces?

First we have to be conscious of the social order that is formed within each office, division and/or geographic location. These work silos as they are sometimes called have their own cohesiveness like the boys in the original team groups. When one work silo must interact with another silo, it is not unlike the two boys’ teams coming together for their tournament. A competition between offices takes place - one for prestige, recognition, leadership or future projects. Like the boys, the two work silos form an immediate (although unconscious) we versus them mentality. This plays out behind the scenes as name calling and finger pointing of blame when things on the project go wrong. This can deteriorate to the level where so much discomfort causes employees to quit or perform at sub par levels. The quality of work from the joint effort is jeopardized.

The second lesson is that there is a relatively simple solution to this work silo problem. If groups can be brought together first to work on cooperative, mutually beneficial projects this will plant the seed for future positive work relationships. The groups could work together on coming up with workplace improvements or maybe you could have the joint group work together on various charitable projects. It doesn't seem to matter much what the joint projects are as long as they allow the groups to work together successfully in a mutually beneficial way. This breaking down of silos through cooperative effort might be just the thing necessary to smooth the way for distributed work groups to successfully tackle more challenging projects.

For more information on the Robber's Cave Experiment click here.


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