I started my career running outdoor teambuilding programs. People joined me out in the woods for a series of absurd challenges that we would now call 'gamified learning', but back then, to sound more respectable, we called initiatives . Regularly, people would ask if working on a puzzle or playing a game together really helped teams. Some classic psychology research tell us it does.
In 1954, researchers from the University of Oklahoma brought a group of Boy Scouts to the Robbers Cave State park as part of an experiment. Their research goal was to understand how group identity formed - both a feeling of 'us' and 'them' - and explore a way to break down the division between groups.
This research was in the grand tradition of mid-century psychology - involved, extensive and dramatic. The 22 boys were divided into two different groups and placed in separate camping areas, far away from one another. For the first week, there was no interaction. Each group formed its own identity, naming themselves The Eagles and The Rattlers. They even built internal hierarchies with some kids getting more respect than others.
In the second week, competition was created. The researchers began a round of games such as kick ball and tug of war pitting the two groups against one another. The competition quickly spilled over to areas outside the game. Each group became jealous of shared resources such as the mess hall and ball field. Before the competition, very little inter-group conflict existed. Now the level of tension rose so high that boys were pre-emptively planning violence if someone violated a team flag or perceived boundary. The peak of conflict resulted in cabins being raided and personal property being stolen.
The researchers were not finished yet. In the final week, they increased the non-competitive interactions between the groups: shared mealtimes and shared times at the waterfront swimming zone. This didn't change anything in the dynamics of the groups. They were still Eagle vs Rattler, with animosity and name calling between the two.
Something did change the relationship, though: first, a shared crisis. A water pipe was sabotaged by the research team and the two groups were called upon to fix it. At first hesitant to work together, they teamed up to find the problem and repair it before a water shortage effected them all. This step was followed by a joint trip to a new campground where the two groups mingled. Everyone helped set up tents, prepare food and even jump start the bus they took there. The identities as members of a group were not erased, but the barriers seem tohave disappeared. One researcher noted at the end of the experiment :
As they rode home from the last day, it was difficult to tell who was an Eagle and who was a Rattler. The group had come together in a way that was unbelievable two weeks previous.
So, what does the Robber's Cave experiment tell us beyond the fact that in the 50's they did the coolest experiments? There are two big takeaways.
We can be very terrible with people who are not part of our group.
Sharing a goal brings people together quickly.
The first point is an inverse to the benefits to belonging: when we think someone doesn't belong, we can be pretty bad to them.
The second is the underlying principle behind most teambuilding initiatives. Bring people together and give them a compelling, common goal, and they come together. Coincidentally, it also puts people solidly in our operational network: when we share a goal, we tend to share a process, and that helps generate a strong network connection.
What can we do with this? When you have a challenging relationship with someone, try to find something you both value and can work on as a pair. A shared goal will bring you together, create a sense of unity and help move the relationship into a better place.