During the humid summer months of 1954, twenty-two 11 and 12-year-old boys were randomly split into two groups and taken to a 200-acre Boy Scouts of America camp in Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma.
Over the next few weeks, they would unknowingly be the subjects of one of the most widely known psychological studies of our time. And the ways these groups bonded and interacted with each other draw some interesting parallels to our understanding of workplace culture.
What is now known as Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave experiment took place in 3 stages. Over the course of the first week, the boys were housed with their groups, in two separate parts of the camp. Without knowing about the existence of the other group, they spent time hiking, swimming, and bonding with each other through several cooperative activities.
Both groups quickly began to form their own cultures and group norms. Each group chose a name, the Eagles and the Rattlers, and created shirts and flags around those identities.
The second stage was the “friction phase”. The groups entered into competition with one another in a variety of camp games, and prizes were awarded to both individual winners and the winning group.
Conflict arose as the two groups first learned about each other through these competitive activities. Both groups developed negative attitudes and behaviors towards the outgroup, calling each other names and singing derogatory songs. And when the Rattlers won the overall trophy, tensions rose even higher. The Eagles burned the Rattler’s flag, and the Rattler’s ransacked the Eagle’s cabin. Soon, the groups refused to eat in the same room together.
The Implications of Culture and Conflict
The Robbers Cave experiment is perhaps the most widely known demonstration of realistic conflict theory, a social psychological model of intergroup conflict. Essentially, the theory explains how conflict can arise between two groups as a result of competition over limited resources and/or conflicting goals.
So, what can we learn from this experiment?
We’ve all heard the horror stories about culture gone wrong. Whether it be Amazon’s “bruising” work environment or the Volkswagen emissions scandal that’s unfolded over the past several years.
We’ve also seen a slew of articles, blog entries, and books that attempt to tell us exactly what we should be doing to create a culture we love at our company. There are a countless number of ways leaders try and develop and bond their teams together. Company retreats. On-site yoga classes. Catered lunches.
But what most people miss about culture in the workplace is that it’s more about people than it is about perks or processes.
We can see this in the first week of the Robbers Cave experiment as the boys bonded with their groups. Think about how your own company works together. What people and groups you interact with on a daily basis. The subtleties in the hierarchy and the underlying behaviors that drive group dynamics. When left on their own, people will naturally adopt a set of behaviors and unspoken ways of interacting with one another.
But when something new is introduced, whether it’s a new employee or a merger with another department, conflict can easily arise. The behaviors that served one group so well may not work in the new environment. The existing underlying values, hidden power struggles, and internal rituals are abruptly unhinged as new group dynamics take hold.
Integration Through Cooperation
After a two-day cooling off period, the third stage of the Robbers Cave experiment began, known as the “integration phase”.
Researchers tried several tactics to try and bring the two groups back together. But when group activities like watching movies, lighting fireworks, or eating together were unsuccessful, they changed their approach.
The two groups were taken to a new location and given a series of problems to try and solve. One such problem, a blocked faucet, finally gave way to cooperation between the two groups as they worked together toward a common goal.
One key aspect of these problem-solving activities is that they all had superordinate goals. That is, goals that require the cooperation of two or more people or groups to achieve. By working together toward common, superordinate goals—ones in which both groups held a vested interest in solving—the two groups were able to put down their differences.
By the end of the camp, both groups came together as friends and eventually chose to travel home together.
The Leader’s Role in Managing Conflict
Culture will happen in your organization whether you know it or not. And it’s important to realize the role that you play as a leader to shape the behaviors that drive it.
In the Robbers Cave experiment, we can see the importance of a critical third group of participants: the researchers. Throughout the length of the study, these researchers were manipulating the environment in a way that would encourage or discourage certain behaviors, depending on the stage of the experiment.
In the second stage, for example, researchers intentionally devised a series of activities and rewards that would place one group in a position of power over another. The winning group was rewarded, while the losing group would be left with feelings of jealousy or resentment toward them. Had the researchers rewarded individuals instead of groups, or provided different kinds of rewards, behaviors may have changed.
Think about what behaviors you incentivize in your organization. Are you encouraging one team to resent another in the spirit of “healthy” competition? Are you encouraging a “not my problem” attitude by keeping your teams in separate silos? Are you ostracizing new employees with a non-existent onboarding process?
What you do as a leader, whether in your actions or your policies, can unknowingly create unwanted pressure and friction for your team. They may not go burn another team’s flag out of anger, but they may feel less valued than their peers, resentful of their co-workers, and ultimately, less engaged in their work.
On the flip side of the coin, you also have the ability to help reduce this friction by incentivizing different behaviors. Rather than creating rewards and recognition around competition, for example, you can begin to illustrate superordinate goals for your team.
As we saw in the Robbers Cave experiment, group dynamics didn’t improve just because of a movie night or passive group activities. And it likely won’t work if you only invest in simple team building tactics.
Instead, create common goals for your company to rally around. Show your employees the vested interest that every department has in their success, and intentionally encourage more positive behaviors that will help everyone in your company work together as a team.
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