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How you can collaborate with your enemies

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How you can collaborate with your enemies

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You would imagine that in a world of collaboration and cooperation being friends with those around you would be a good thing to be.  Indeed, a study last year by Globoforce found that a workforce that has strong bonds is likely to be a much happier and more engaged one.

Of course, that isn’t always possible, and it’s likely that there will be some people at work that you don’t get on with at all well.  How is the best way to deal with them?

The old adage suggests that you should keep your friends close, but your enemies closer, but a recent study suggests that may not be the best approach at all, at least that is if you want to collaborate effectively with them.

The researchers used the renowned bear pit of the US Senate as their petri dish.  They analyzed the behaviors of senators over a 36 year period from 1973 to 2009 to see how they engaged with their ideological rivals.

They found a fascinating pattern begin to emerge.  There seemed to be a direct link between the amount of contact rival senators had with one another and the closeness of their voting record.  This was found to be particularly pronounced on issues that were very divisive.

“Conventional wisdom says interpersonal contact between people will foster collaboration and consensus,” the authors say. “We found that increasing physical contact between people who have opposing and public political identities can instead promote divergence of attitudes or behavior. This tendency is further amplified in environments involving high conflict, which makes political identities more salient.”

So in other words, the more people with different opinions mingled with each other, the more divergent their actions became.  A bit like trying to mix oil with water.

The researchers used two distinct measures of a senators political identity:

  1. their party affiliation
  2. the religious climate in their home state

The engagement between senators also utilized two metrics:

  1. whether they were sat close to one another in the Senate
  2. whether they were on the same committees

It emerged that when senators from the same party had more contact, their voting behavior tended to converge.  When senators from different parties had more contact however, usually via committee, their voting behavior tended to get further apart.

“Co-location can induce both positive and negative outcomes. Sometimes keeping some distance is the better option,” the paper says.

Whilst the study was limited to the political arena, the authors believe that the findings are just as relevant for other fields of organizational life.  Indeed, they think it is appropriate for any environment where opinions can be polarized.

For example, the authors explain, “Post-merger integration, particularly following a contested takeover, can produce oppositional identities in a very public setting. In such cases, it may help to move interactions into more private settings and find common ground on less divisive issues before tackling the more controversial ones.”

So there may actually be good reason to keep your enemies far away after all.

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