When you all pull together, it pulls you all together.
What happens if you have two groups of people who don’t like working together? How do you get them to function as one? In a strange experiment over 60 years ago that evokes images of Lord of the Flies, a researcher discovered one very effective way to accomplish this.
Today we’ll talk about what happened, and how we can apply what he learned to improve our own group cohesion.
Back in the 1950s, Social Scientist Muzafer Sherif was trying to understand what drives groups apart and what brings them together. In a famous experiment he and his team recruited 22 middle-school aged boys, broke them into two teams and took them to summer camp near Robber’s Cave State Park, Oklahoma.
His first goal was to see how hard it would be to make them dislike each other. Turned out it wasn’t too difficult.
Sherif had the teams of boys live in separate, isolated cabins. Each team rode in its own bus, established its own leadership, designed its own flag, and chose its own name. In just a few short days of hiking and other camp activities, the “Eagles” and the “Rattlers” had quickly developed their own, very distinct team identities.
Let the Games Begin!
Then researchers put the two teams into direct competition with each other. The days were filled with hotly contested sports, tug-of-war, and other contests.
The winning team got a trophy; winning team members got medals or prizes like a pocket knife.
Losers got nothing.
As the days went on, the rivalry between the teams quickly intensified. What began as taunting and name-calling threatened to escalate into physical altercation.
At one point, the Eagles stole the Rattlers’ flag and burned it. In retaliation, the Rattlers broke into the Eagles’ cabin, turning over beds and stealing private property. Protracted food fights broke out in the mess hall.
Before things got worse, the researchers instituted a cooling off period. Sherif and his team had seen what they thought they would.
When two groups of people compete for limited resources (the trophies and prizes), inter-group friction crystallizes into unfavorable stereotypes, self-righteousness, and a strong negative attitude towards the out-group. No surprise here.
Having put the groups fiercely at odds with each other, the researchers had set the scene for the more challenging phase of the experiment. What would it take to build group cohesion between the warring teams?
Getting Close by Being Close?
First they tried simply increasing contact between the groups. Maybe they just needed a chance to get to know each other better, and everything will be OK.
Researchers conspired to make unstructured time available to give the groups a chance to mingle, whether in the recreation hall, mess hall, or even an open movie night.
Throughout, the boys refused to associate with each other, sticking exclusively with their own teams. They were strongly opposed to doing anything that involved the other group, even fun things like outings or lighting firecrackers.
Name calling continued, and food fights in the mess hall were becoming common, and nasty.
If anything, the unstructured opportunities for contact between groups only exacerbated the friction between them.
The researchers would have to try something else to get the groups to unite, so over the next few days they engineered a series of “incidents.”
Water Outage. One morning they told both teams of boys that vandals from outside the camp had damaged the water supply. Camp staff told the boys they needed the help of both teams to find and fix the problem.
After tracing the water pipes back to the main water tank, the boys discovered that the valve had been jammed and a pipe damaged. It took a little while, but working together they managed to get the valve unstuck.
Once the water began to flow, everyone wanted to drink, but the Eagles didn’t have their canteens. The Rattlers didn’t have a problem letting them go first.
Movie Night. Later, camp leaders told the boys that a popular movie was available for them to watch together, but the camp could not afford the full cost of renting it. They said that if each team could contribute an amount to help cover the cost, they would be able to get the movie.
After discussing the problem, both teams of boys took up a collection and handed in their money. That night they watched the movie together.
There was no conflict; one or two boys mingled with the opposite team.
Broken-Down Truck. The next day, the camp cook pretended that he couldn’t get his truck started. If the truck couldn’t go to town to get food, there would be no lunch.
The boys quickly realized that one team would not be strong enough to push-start the truck. Ultimately the boys decided that if both teams used the tug-of-war rope to pull the truck together, they might be able to get it started.
After some great acting by the cook, the truck engine coughed to life. Both groups shouted together, “Yeah! We won the tug-of-war against the truck.”
Other situations. Researchers put the boys through several other scenarios that forced them to work together, from cooking a meal with limited resources, to running a campfire program, to taking a trip to the state border.
In every situation, as the boys discovered that they could only succeed by working together, the frictions and barriers between the groups began to dissolve.
Heading Home from Camp
By the last day of camp, group cohesion had grown to the extent that the boys told the researchers that they wanted to all travel home on the same bus together. The teams were completely intermingled.
At a rest stop, the Rattlers volunteered to use their last $5 to buy malted milks for both teams.
On the final leg of their journey home, all the boys crowded together near the front of the bus, sang “Oklahoma,” and promised each other that they would meet again.
Building Group Cohesion – The Takeaway
What’s the takeaway? If you want to create conflict, isolate people into groups and force them to compete for limited resources. Then sit back and watch the fireworks.
But if you are trying to build group cohesion, just sitting everyone in the same room is not enough.
What bridges the gap is a common objective, a shared goal, and a team culture that forces everyone to work together for a common benefit.
When people have to cooperate in order to succeed, they have reason to forget about competing with each other and focus on being productive together.
If you are seeing a local version of food fights in the mess hall, think about this experiment and what it tells us about how people function.
Then ask yourself this question: Is your organization set up to build group cohesion or foster faction?
If it is starting to feel like you are trapped at Robber’s Cave and the Eagles just stole your flag, it might be time to step back and ask yourself, “What would Sherif and his researchers do to bring us back together?”