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Leaders Shape Their Teams’ Identity, for Better or Worse

Jan. 9, 2024
Hostility comes from competing with ‘them.’ Collaboration comes from goals ‘we’ pursue.

In the summer of 1954, 22 boys were divided into two bunkhouses at Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. Over the following three weeks, they formed separate friendships and identities—The Eagles and The Rattlers—and eventually became hostile to members of the opposing team as they competed in various games.

In the third week, they reconciled differences and learned to cooperate again. Interestingly, fun social events, such as movie night and fireworks, did not improve relationships. Only when they were tasked with solving challenges requiring the resources and efforts of both groups—fixing the camp’s water supply and pulling their food truck out of a ditch—did conflict diminish, and cross-group friendships start to form.

This experiment led to the Realistic Conflict Theory, suggesting that intergroup conflict arises from competition for limited resources. The under-reported insight from Robber’s Cave, however, is how the experimenters turned the situation around, overcoming hostility and creating effective collaboration by assigning shared goals and leading campers to a shared identity.

A Lack of Unity Increases Conflict

A more nuanced view of competition would say that it doesn’t always lead to hostility. Indeed, it can be playful, enjoyed by members of the same ‘club’ and is often a way to make friends. It is only when we perceive competitors as outsiders and a threat—to our resources, status, and identity—that hostility rises.

In the workplace, competition can be for finance, headcount, recognition, promotions and even proximity to the boss. One of the biggest challenges for executive teams is when there is a lack of unity—when the identity of team members has shifted too far toward their functional silos and away from shared aims. The result is an increase in conflict, delays, overspending, and a lack of creative problem-solving. No one is having fun, and the multiplier effect of divisions at the top wreaks havoc throughout the organization.

The team’s identity shapes behavior. The leader shapes the team’s identity.

In August 1971, 24 men were divided into equal numbers of guards and prisoners, provided with costumes and placed in a mock prison in the basement of Stanford’s Psychology department building. Despite being instructed that there would be no physical abuse, on only the second day the prisoners staged a rebellion. Within four days, three prisoners had become so traumatized that they had to be released. The guards became increasingly cruel while the prisoners became so depressed and disoriented that the experiment was ended early from an outside intervention.

The Stanford Prison Experiment has been heavily criticized for both methodological and moral reasons. In fact, it has been completely discredited as a scientific experiment. However, it remains a powerful image of how easily groups can be led to hostile and even cruel behavior by adopting social identities. While this is an extreme example, it is quite normal to for us to adopt the behaviors of new groups we join; workplace cultures, sports and social clubs, churches, online communities, political affiliations, new locations.

Recent access to the Stanford archive reveals that Philip Zimbardo, the experimenter, interfered with the results by coaching the participants to behave in a way that would confirm his hypothesis that the power of the situation determines behavior. While his intervention ruined the validity of the experiment, it unquestionably demonstrated his influence in leading the participants to adopt an identity and act a certain way.

Recasting Leadership

In summary, these two famous experiments show us:

1.  Team members’ behaviors are dramatically shaped by their shared identity – particularly whether they perceive others as one of “us” or one of “them”

2.  Team leaders (experimenters) have a pivotal role in creating the group’s shared identity and influencing subsequent behavior.

With this in mind, there is a new way of thinking about the role of leadership. Instead of thinking of leaders as individuals who need to demonstrate certain competencies to be successful, Social Identity Leadership recognizes that leaders and followers are joined through a shared identity which shapes behavior.

Here then is a list of actions the team leader might take to improve team and organizational effectiveness through the development of a positive shared identity:

1. Give the team a name—and some swag. Group identity symbols have been used across cultures and for millennia to both unify and intimidate. In the U.S., we pledge allegiance to the Flag. Research shows that simply wearing a yellow or a blue wristband changes feelings of inclusion and exclusion. There’s a reason that the Robber’s Cave participants were grouped into Rattlers and Eagles, and that you have your favorite football team’s logo on your coffee mug.

2.  Make them proud. Acknowledge the positive aspects of the team often. Team pride motivates individuals to maintain the team’s (superior) status and achieve its goals. It promotes in-group collaboration and is a source of ongoing motivation.

3. Articulate the challenges that require everyone’s resources and effort. While “capturing the flag” is an easy illustration, defining the work of the executive team, which requires a truly collective effort, is harder. Often, the more shared the goals, the more abstract and less immediate they are. Vision, mission and values are aspirational and may never be fully realized. Strategy is multi-year and evergreen. But this is the true collective work of the executive team—and so it’s important to shape the team’s identity by keeping this front of mind and regularly on the agenda. Better, still, when there are more immediate shared goals to be accomplished: launching a new product, entering a new market, hitting the quarterly numbers, landing a transformative acquisition, going public …

4. Define role expectations. Executives need to wear at least two hats—that of the function they lead and that of their role as peer team member. If the team leader sets the expectation purely in terms of leading their function, the group will experience internal competition and a lack of collaboration. Instead, we want to define functional success in terms of progress toward shared aims. Nothing saps the energy from a team meeting more than going around the room reporting on what each has accomplished. And nothing adds more energy than working together on shared passionate causes.

5. Define who you are competing against. We can see this as a subset of strategy, but strategy is academic, whereas fighting the enemy is visceral and—for better or worse—a  way to tap into our deep psychological motivation.

6. Talk about who the team wants to be. Social identities are more closely intertwined with the group’s aspirations (goals, aims, ambitions) than the group “as it currently is.” It is important to listen and facilitate a shared view of these aspirations so that the leader is perceived as representing and furthering the group’s interest, not just their own. A particularly powerful discussion can be about the kind of team we want and need to become to achieve our shared aims. Given the chance, most teams will express a collective desire to operate as one team—committed, audacious even.

7. Represent the team.The more the leader is able to represent who “we” are and who we want to be, the more they will be trusted and influential. We see this so clearly demonstrated in the murky world of populist politicians who present themselves as representatives of the people’s interests, no matter how inaccurate that might be. Unpleasant, but the fact remains that this political skill is very powerful in influencing group behavior. All the better to make this a sincere effort with the authentic interest in advancing the team’s aims.

8. Include the diversity of the whole organization. Defining the leadership team as the “in- group” and others as “out groups” would be disastrous, especially as management is often perceived this way already. The team’s identity must include the deeply held interests of the broad diversity of all functions, levels, stakeholders, customers, races, ethnicities, abilities, genders, sexual orientation, neurodiversity and beyond. In this sense Team Identity Leadership becomes Identity Leadership for the broader organization.

Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Chris Morgan has more than 20 years expertise as an executive coach. He is a partner at Morgan Alexander, and co-founder of Listentool, a real-time feedback software solution.

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