Competition – or Cooperation? When companies merge, or when one company acquires another, the aim is to integrate the two into one unified entity as quickly as possible.
The problem is that often, this doesn’t happen. There is competition, resentment and rivalry and the two fail to unite. The problem is how to prevent this so that there is a successful integration of the employees of the two companies so that they take pride in the new merged company.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that the Bible gives a way forward when he discusses what happened after the Israelites built the Golden Calf in the Sinai desert. They were given a task – to build a tabernacle to pray to God. Moses asks the Israelites to make voluntary contributions to the construction of the Tabernacle – the Sanctuary. They do so with such generosity that Moses has to order them to stop.
If you want to bond human beings so that they act for the common good, get them to build something together. Get them to undertake a task that they can only achieve together, that none can do alone.
The power of this principle was demonstrated in a famous social-scientific research exercise carried out in 1954 by Muzafer Sherif and others from the University of Oklahoma, known as the Robbers’ Cave experiment. Sherif wanted to understand the dynamics of group conflict and prejudice. To do so, he and his fellow researchers selected a group of 22 white, eleven-year-old boys, none of whom had met one another before. They were taken to a remote summer camp in Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma. They were randomly allocated into two groups.
Initially neither group knew of the existence of the other. They were staying in cabins far apart. The first week was dedicated to team-building. The boys hiked and swam together. Each group chose a name for itself – they became The Eagles and the Rattlers. They stencilled the names on their shirts and flags.
Then, for four days they were introduced to one another through a series of competitions. There were trophies, medals and prizes for the winners, and nothing for the losers. Almost immediately there was tension between them: name-calling, teasing, and derogatory songs. It got worse. Each burned the other’s flag and raided their cabins. They objected to eating together with the others in the same dining hall.
Stage 3 was called the ‘integration phase’. Meetings were arranged. The two groups watched films together. They lit Fourth-of-July firecrackers together. The hope was that these face-to-face encounters would lessen tensions and lead to reconciliation. They didn’t. Several broke up with the children throwing food at one another.
In stage 4, the researchers arranged situations in which a problem arose that threatened both groups simultaneously. The first was a blockage in the supply of drinking water to the camp. The two groups identified the problem separately and gathered at the point where the blockage had occurred. They worked together to remove it, and celebrated together when they succeeded.
The lessons for companies trying to work together should be obvious – integration isn’t through words but actions, collaboration and co-operation. It’s NOT through conflict or continuing the “us” and “them” approaches often seen.
In another, both groups voted to watch some films. The researchers explained that the films would cost money to hire, and there was not enough in camp funds to do so. Both groups agreed to contribute an equal share to the cost. In a third, the coach on which they were travelling stalled, and the boys had to work together to push it. By the time the trials were over, the boys had stopped having negative images of the other side. On the final bus ride home, the members of one team used their prize money to buy drinks for everyone.
Similar outcomes have emerged from other studies. The conclusion is revolutionary. You can turn even hostile factions into a single cohesive group so long as they are faced with a shared challenge that all can achieve together but none can do alone.
The point is obvious. In order to integrate two groups together – whether they are companies, teams, departments or any other collection of people – you need to encourage not just co-operation with motivational words, but also set in place collaboration that involves both groups sharing and building together.
When mergers & acquisitions fail it is often because the two parts don’t behave as one. The Robber’s Cave experiment gives an explanation on why this is – and more importantly, how to correct it.