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Volume 17, Issue 33;   August 16, 2017: The Discontinuity Effect: What and Why

The Discontinuity Effect: What and Why

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Last updated: August 8, 2018

Counterproductive competition is more likely in group-group interactions than in one-to-one or one-to-group interactions. Why does counterproductive competition happen?
The U.S. and Russian delegations meet to negotiate the New Start Treaty

The U.S. delegation, left, meets with the Russian delegation, right, at the Bilateral Consultative Commission on the New START Treaty, in the U.S. Mission at Geneva, Switzerland, on March 28, 2011. The "face-off" configuration is a traditional seating plan in diplomatic negotiations. That it is traditional in diplomacy does not imply that it is effective in the workplace. It is a geometric expression of conditions that are ideal for bringing about the Discontinuity Effect. Photo by the U.S. Department of State, courtesy Wikimedia.

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 collaboration
more 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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Look Where You Aren't Looking  Next Issue

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