A 63-Year-Old Experiment Reveals the Secret to Solving Office Drama

The key to success for any company often lies in cooperation. Communication and understanding is a precursor of success. The opposite is also true; miscommunication and a lack of mutual understanding between departments are common recipes for any organizational failure.

As a result, maintaining inter-group harmony a critical objective within any organization. What are some strategies for keeping the peace and fostering cooperation? What are the key tools an organizational behavior expert should use for integrating various groups? One answer lies in a 63-year-old experiment, which involved two groups of 12-year-old boys at Robber’s Cave State Park, Oklahoma, America.

The Robber’s Cave Experiment

The Robber’s Cave experiment involved two groups of 12-year-olds, which were chosen to attend a summer camp. Each group, unaware of the other, was housed in its own cabin, where members participated in activities like swimming and hiking. Over time, the bond within each group grew so strong that they gave themselves names: the Eagles and the Rattlers. They even stenciled the names on their t-shirts.

After the two groups were firmly established, the experiment moved to its second stage. Each group encountered the other for the first time, and an immediate rivalry developed. To further encourage conflict, the researchers pitted one group against the other in a series of competitions. This antagonized the groups even more, and they fought intensely to score points over the other. In the end, the Rattlers won, compounding the Eagles defeat with taunts and jeers. This further alienated the groups until, eventually, they even refused to eat together.

With the groups now in open conflict, the experiment moved to its final phase. First, the researchers tried to make the groups mingle together at a movie night or participating in fireworks. Both efforts failed, so the researchers tried a new approach: giving the groups common problems to solve together.

First, the researchers said the drinking water supply had been damaged by vandals. Upon working together to restore the water, the first signs of peace began to emerge between groups. Next, the groups were asked to collectively pay for a movie. Both groups decided on which movie to watch and, by that evening, they had started to eat together.

Over time, researchers posed more mutual problems, and solving each problem strengthened the group’s bond. The key is they were working together on goals which both groups shared an interest in achieving. This made cooperation easier and fostered the seeds of friendship. By the end of the whole experiment, the groups traveled together in the same bus as friends.

The study identifies a critical factor in fostering inter-group cooperation and harmony. Focusing on objectives in which separate parties have a mutual interest boosts inter-group cohesion. Yes, each group retains its separate identity, structure and exclusive dynamics, but when these two parties start working together on goals they both benefit from, inter-group cooperation occurs in an organic manner.

How to Use the Robber’s Cave Findings in Your Organization

When two departments within an organization are in conflict, it’s a recipe for disaster. We can use the Robber’s Cave experiment by defining mutual goals from which both parties can benefit. Perhaps it’s a company target both groups need one another’s expertise to achieve. Identifying a goal where both groups must be part of the solution fosters cooperation and rapprochement.

To further integrate the groups, an organization should make these common tasks a democratic activity where every group member from each group maintains influence. When the members of each group feel influential in the decision-making process, the groups become more unified in their tasks. Conversely, when only group leaders exert decision-making power, little cohesion will run throughout the entire department; conflict will continue to exist at lower levels.

“In a business relationship, I feel it’s actually constructive to have differing points of view to see the bigger picture of where everyone is coming from,” said Clinton Senkow, Co-Founder, and COO of Influencive. “But, in order to solve problems together, it’s important that all team members feel valued and [that] they are contributing to solving the problem. Making it a team effort vs a one or two-person show is key to creating a culture and environment others want to work in.”

Inter-group competition is productive and gamifies achievement within an organization, but it is crucial to make sure that competition does not evolve into tribalism. There should be systems of integration in place that reinforce each group’s need of the others in order to achieve a greater goal, which more often than not is the overall success of the company.

I can attest in the two decades of working with start-ups, that office drama can cripple your organization. Give some thought to 63 years of data. 

**Abhik Shome contributed to this article. 

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