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Collaboration, Conflict and Vladimir’s Choice

Despite the best efforts of countless leaders, many departments and teams continue to compete with one another and pull each other down. In fact, a recent client grumbled to me that his company felt like a “confederation of warring tribes.” To better understand why effective collaboration is so difficult to achieve, leaders should just ask Vladimir.

According to an ancient Russian fable, a penniless serf named Vladimir (not Putin) was visited by God, who offered to fulfill Vladimir’s single greatest wish. As Vladimir contemplated this amazing gift, God added, “And Vladimir, anything I grant to you I will provide to your neighbor Peter, only it shall be double that which you will receive.” “But God,” Vladimir cried, “Peter dwells in a rival clan!” After a long pause, Vladimir decided his (and Peter’s) fate: “OK God, gouge out one of my eyes.”

Vladimir’s Choice is a parable describing a well-documented and unfortunate phenomenon first identified by social psychologist Henri Tajfel, the pioneer of Social Identity Theory. Tajfel’s experiments revealed that the more people identify with a single group, the more they want to dominate competing groups. This tendency is amplified when limited resources are available.

Under these circumstances, when given a choice to maximize everyone’s benefit or to reduce their own benefit, as long as the other group receives even less, groups consistently select a lower gain for themselves (Vladimir lives!).

Tajfel focused on how Social Identity Theory led to disastrous consequences for society (he was a Holocaust survivor who experienced group domination first-hand). Yet leaders of any complex organization also need to understand how peoples’ tendency to see themselves as “us” vs. “them” can profoundly undermine collaboration. Three factors amplify these partisan biases:

  1. When a group’s status is threatened, peoples’ identification with the group increases. We frequently see this in post-merger environments, when ‘acquired’ employees cling to their ‘legacy’ identities from their earlier company, sometimes years after the acquisition was finalized.
  2. Group identification intensifies when leaders set up groups to contend against each other. This can occur through processes like budget allocations, or when leaders shower a favored group with approval. How often do departments criticize or blame each other in an attempt to curry favor with their bosses?
  3. Finally, when people have a strong allegiance to a single group’s identity, they often isolate themselves from other groups. I’ve frequently witnessed a siege mentality from people who work remotely or away from the corporate center. They often position themselves as “David’s” to the “Goliaths” of headquarters. You’d never even know that they work for the same company.

Once social identities solidify, it is challenging for leaders to break silos down and successfully implement cross-organizational collaborations. After all, we derive a sense of “who we are” from the groups we belong to, and we gain higher self-esteem when accepted into a group. But there are several strategies leaders can employ to mitigate these challenges:

  • Become aware of the “in-group” vs. “out-group” dynamics going on in your organization. Aligning groups’ goals is an important exercise, but still may fail to address the deeper identity issues preventing departments from collaborating effectively.
  • Encourage lots of interaction across your organization, both formally and informally. The more people get to know “the other,” the more they see each other as humans rather than as obstacles. It is hard to demonize someone you hang out with regularly.
  • Remind people of their multiple identities. We aren’t just accountants, or salespeople, or HR people. We also belong to other groups – families, religious congregations, bowling leagues, civic organizations, etc. And of course, in an organization, everyone’s main social identity and loyalty should be to the overall enterprise itself.
  • Be mindful to not pit groups against each other. There is nothing wrong with competition, but if internal groups compete too much with each other, there is little energy left to compete in the real marketplace. Help people see that winning against each other is not the same thing as succeeding.

The story of Vladimir and his clan is alive and well in organizations, but it doesn’t mean we have to make the same choice he did. Understanding the dynamics of social identities is a first step for sophisticated leaders to encourage deeper, more effective collaboration in their organizations.

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