What’s the most effective way of converting rivals into allies in the workplace? Most executives who find themselves at the sharp end of a rivalry will turn to reason, presenting new facts, logical arguments and fresh incentives for a more collaborative relationship. Sadly, these initiatives rarely succeed. Research from Professor Brian Uzzi of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management suggests why: beginning with reason puts the cart before the horse.
Rivalries can and do involve rationality, but they always involve emotion. Drawing on case studies, brain physiology studies, the sociology of relationships and the psychology of influence, Uzzi’s research into workplace rivalries suggests that when negative emotions kick in, psychology gets overwhelmed by physiology. As he puts it:
“When we experience negative emotions, blood recedes from the thinking part of the brain, the cerebral cortex, and rushes to its oldest and most involuntary part, the “reptilian” stem, crippling the intake of new information.”
However, one’s rival or enemy, thankfully, has more than the reptilian brain stem to draw from, and there’s no need to think of rivalries as incurable, chronic illnesses. They’re better seen as wounds in need of salving and healing, even though they can be highly destructive in their effects, thwarting entirely sound initiatives and even damaging a new leader’s career: if nothing gets done because rivalry is killing new ideas before they can take root, leadership will also fail. Rivalry is the saboteur of novelty and beneficent change.
How do we reverse the emotional activation of the reptilian brain system and encourage people back into the cerebral cortex, the thinking and problem-solving part of the brain? Once the reptile brain system has taken over, logic and reason won’t work; all the arguments will be emotionally received as ruses and fakery, and then deftly converted into reasons for maintaining the rivalry.
In Part Two of this blog, I’ll introduce you to Professor Uzzi’s “3Rs” model of rivalry resolution.