To make organizations more manageable, we partition them into functions: Marketing, Sales, Human Resources, Information Technology, Facilities, and so on. The very largest enterprises consist of groups and divisions, each, in turn, further partitioned into functions. Although the parts nominally strive for the goals of the enterprise, they do, at times, compete for resources, attention, credit for successes, and to avoid blame for failures. When they compete, they often exhibit what social psychologists call the discontinuity effect.
Researchers have found that groups interacting with groups tend to favor competitive behaviors over collaborative approaches more often than do individuals interacting with individuals, or groups interacting with individuals, or individuals interacting with groups. Although the effect intensifies with group size, the greatest difference in competitiveness occurs between one-on-one and two-on-two interactions, hence the name, discontinuity effect.
Research is ongoing, but two lines of investigation seem most promising.
- People tend to distrust groups
- We tend to trust In the workplace, interventions
that build trust between
groups might help
foster collaborationmore easily those who are similar to ourselves. Since we see members of other groups as inherently different, they can seem less trustworthy than do members of our own group.
- In the workplace, interventions that build trust between groups might help foster collaboration. Social events, rotating seconding assignments, and other activities that foster personal relationships across group boundaries might therefore mitigate the discontinuity effect. Agile teams, which are often formed this way, might owe some of their success to reducing the discontinuity effect.
- Group settings encourage choice shifts
- A choice shift is the outcome of a change in the attitudes of the members of a group that results from interactions within the group. For example, even if only a few people in Group A distrust Group B, they can influence others in Group A to adopt a similar distrusting attitude. If their influence is strong enough, Group A might adopt a deeper distrust of Group B than its members, on average, would have adopted on their own.
- This phenomenon might be responsible for the polarization that occurs in political parties and online environments, where people with extreme views have access to those with more temperate views. In the workplace, through email and social media, their influence can bring about a shift towards competition in the choices groups make regarding workplace decisions.
Most experiments reported in the discontinuity effect literature differ from workplace settings in that they usually study the interactions of only two entities at a time, in various combinations of groups or individuals. The real world is more complicated, with multiple interacting entities that must choose between competitive and collaborative behaviors. And most real-world entities are subordinate to managers or parent organizations that demand collaboration, while at the same time arranging structures that demand competition. The experimental results might or might not be applicable to these more complicated situations, but they nevertheless provide some insight into human psychology. It's wise to apply the principles of risk management to limit the damage the discontinuity effect can do. Top Next Issue
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- Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern. Available here and by RSS on October 17.
- And on October 24: Conversation Irritants: I
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