How do you get competitive groups to work with each other? How do you improve cross-group collaboration? Superordinate goals. In Social Psychology: Theories, Research, and Applications, Robert S. Feldman writes about how superordinate goals were effective in uniting competitive groups.
Two Groups in the Same Camp
“One of the best examples of how group goals can influence group formation comes from a now-classic field study held in a boy’s summer camp named Robber’s Cave (Sherif, 1966). Two groups of missle-class 11- and 12-year-olds – none of whom knew that he was in an experiment – were settled in opposite sides of the camp. Each group was unaware of the other group’s existence. To develop the two campsites into groups, the experimenters arranged for the boys to engage in activities that could only be carried out by group efforts, such as carrying a heavy canoe into the water or cleaning a dirty beach so that it was suitable for
use. Quite soon, each campsite evolved into what could clearly be called a group. They gave themselves names (the “Rattlers” and the “Eagles”) and they developed particular patterns and standards of behavior unique to each group.”
Wicked, Disturbed and Vicious
“Once the two groups had been established, the experiments tried to develop competition. To do this, they developed a tournament of games in which the two groups competed for a series of prizes that only one group could win. The researchers got more than they bargained for: beyond the tournament. The groups picked fights, raided each other’s campsights, and generally behaved in a manner that lead the researchers to feel that, to an outside observer, the children appeared as “wicked, disturbed, and vicious bunches of youngsters” (Sherif, 1966, p. 58). “
“In an attempt to reduce the intergroup conflict, the experimenters at first tried a number of strategies that proved ineffective. Arranging for pleasant experiences, such as watching a movie, only provoked more fighting as soon as the lights were dimmed. Moral exhortation proved useless. Even the introduction of a third group, which was supposed to act as a kind of common enemy, was ineffective. One thing did work, however: the introduction of a superordinate goal. Reasoning that it was common goals that led to the formation of the groups initially, the researchers thought that the introduction of goals that were common to both groups – superordinate goals – might be effective in uniting the two groups. This time, they were right. ”
Crisis Brings the Groups Together
“The experimenters arranged for a series of emergencies. For instance, the water supply broke down, and the boys had to work jointly if they wanted to have water to drink. After a number of such events, group hostility was eventually reduced, friendships developed across group lines, and the superordinate goals became effective in unifying the previously hostile groups.”
Key Take Aways
I think we’ve all seen crisis bring folks together. At work I often run into groups competing against each other for limited resources or territory. Common goals are a higher level bring groups together. When that’s not possible, it’s important to take away the threat, to reduce cross-group hostility. One way to do this, if the space is large enough, is to carve out a niche, to reduce the turf wars. Everybody gets a place to play and they respect each other’s boundaries.