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Can collaboration be exploited?


The essence of a social business is a conscientious one, with employees generally sticking up for one another and attempting to help wherever possible.  Such bonds of togetherness are of course not easy to conjure, but one area where they often do form is when the group faces adversity.

This basic in group/out group psychology underpins why many organisations are quite happy to have an enemy or rival that they can use to both bond their own group together and give a sense of identity.  The enmity between Apple and Microsoft is one of the more well known examples of this kind of culture.

A new study from the University of Guelph has uncovered an interesting nuance of such adversity driven groups however, especially in organisations with a very hierarchical structure.

“Sociologists have known for a long time that groups tend to come together when they face adversity,” said researcher Stephen Benard. “What our research highlights is that there is a downside to our tendency to stick together when things are tough—powerful group members can exploit that tendency to distract us from competing with them.”

The researchers created various teams and asked them to play a game that required them to cooperate with one another.  An external threat element was included by allowing players to pay money to increase the perception of threat to their group.  They found that the team members with higher ranking positions paid more to both create a perceived threat, but also to manipulate that perceived threat to maintain their lofty position.

“With this approach, we find people in high-ranking positions are more likely to manipulate apparent threats when their position is precarious, compared to when it is secure,” Benard said.But this doesn’t mean the next crisis at work is a ploy by the boss to boost her job security. Social science predictions involve the average person, in general, not specific people or situations.

“When groups face potential threats, it’s important to judge those threats carefully,” Benard said. “On one hand, you want to be alert to the fact that other group members might have an incentive to exaggerate the threat. On the other hand, it’s also important not to underestimate threats that could be real.”

The research didn’t reveal whether the other members were aware of the Machiavellian intent of their boss, but it does perhaps suggest that leaders need to think carefully before using an external threat to bond their own group together, or at the very least do so for the right reasons rather than for their own ends.

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