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
Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Totally at Home
- Getting home from work is far more than a question of transportation. What can we do to come home totally
— to move not only our bodies, but our minds and our spirits from work to home?
- Divisive Debates and Virulent Victories
- When groups decide divisive issues, harmful effects can linger for weeks, months, or forever. Although
those who prevail might be ready to "move on," others might feel so alienated that they experience
even daily routine as fresh insult and disparagement. How a group handles divisive issues can determine
- Pariah Professions: I
- In some organizations entire professions are held in low regard. Their members become pariahs to some
people in the rest of the organization. When these conditions prevail, organizational performance suffers.
- Face-Off Negotiations
- In difficult face-to-face negotiations — or any face-to-face negotiations — seating arrangements
do matter. Here's an exploration of one common seating pattern.
- On Assigning Responsibility for Creating Trouble
- When we assign responsibility for troubles that bedevil us, we often make mistakes. We can be misled
by language, stereotypes, and the assumptions we make about others.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming May 29: Newtonian Blind Alleys: II
- Some of our decisions don't turn out well. The nature of our errors does vary, but a common class of errors is due to applying concepts from physics originated by Isaac Newton. One of these is the concept of spectrum. Available here and by RSS on May 29.
- And on June 5: I Could Be Wrong About That
- Before we make joint decisions at work, we usually debate the options. We come together to share views, and then a debate ensues. Some of these debates turn out well, but too many do not. Allowing for the fact that "I could be wrong" improves outcomes. Available here and by RSS on June 5.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.