‘Friend and Foe’: Balancing Competition and Cooperation

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Maurice Schweitzer and Adam Galinsky discuss their new book.

We often look at our relationships in terms of extremes: someone is either a friend or a foe. But Friend and Foe, a new book by Wharton professor Maurice Schweitzer and Columbia Business School professor Adam Galinsky, suggests that most relationships are a lot more complex: They include both cooperation and competition.

Knowledge@Wharton recently spoke with Schweitzer and Galinksy about why people are most successful when we are able to navigate the tension between the two.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: Maurice and Adam, you write that a key insight of the book is that both at work and at home, we’re competing and cooperating all of the time — often at the same time. You also point out that we often miss the mark by focusing the discussion on whether it’s better to do one or the other. Why is that?

Schweitzer: It starts with the idea that we love to categorize things in our world. It really helps us navigate our way through our social experience. From a very young age, we categorize that there are girls and there are boys, [for example]. That extends to thinking about people as either our friends or our foes….

Galinsky: As academics, we also do that natural categorization when we construct our theories. We miss the mark oftentimes because it’s really easy to come up with a theory that says, “We are born to compete.” It’s also very easy to come up with the alternative theory, “We have an innate instinct for empathy.” Even as academics we’re trying to simplify the world to try to understand it, and it’s easy to take that one lens. Now to keep both those lenses and describe this idea — there’s a tension between them and a balance between them — it makes the world a little bit more complex, although obviously more realistic. This idea that we’re competing and cooperating all of the time exists for every relationship.  Twitter In fact, it even exists for co-authors, right?

Schweitzer: Yes, it’s true for us — even going back and forth taking turns writing and revising. We talked about whose name is going to go first on the book, and we decided to go with the convention of alphabetical order, even though we both contributed equally.

Galinsky: Another coin toss. You know, there’s really no difference. But even that creates some tension. How are we going to decide who gets to be first, who gets to be second? Being first is still a little bit better, so fortunately, I was born with a slightly earlier name in the alphabet. You see that cooperation-and-competition tension existing even as we write the book.

Knowledge@Wharton: You identify three forces that influence how we shift from friend to foe, and those are scarcity, sociability and dynamic instability. Can you describe each one of those and talk a little bit about how they interact with each other?

Galinsky: Let me give you one of the examples we use in the book…. Water is an incredibly scarce, important resource on the plains of Africa. When water is abundant, Grévy’s zebras form a particular form of social organization — these strong collectives, lots of interacting with each other in stable units around the water source. But when water becomes scarce, then they quickly dissipate from the collective, and they form small bonds with each other, which often are temporary bonds, too. You can see how the scarce resource, which is dynamically changing over time, produces different types of social relationships.

“Whether it’s a good deal, whether it’s parental attention, whether it’s water, [the dynamic] changes quickly over time and fundamentally alters social relationships.”–Adam Galinsky

Schweitzer: That’s true even [when the resource is] people. We find, for example, siblings often compete for a scarce resource, which is parental attention…. Siblings can be incredibly collaborative — the best of friends — but we also think about sibling rivalry. They can be incredible adversaries, often competing for some of these scarce resources. This can change quickly, dynamically as the family structure changes or even at the very beginning — breastfeeding, for example, is one way infants delay the arrival of a new sibling. By breastfeeding longer, women are less likely to get pregnant, and that preserves their attention for as long as they possibly can.

Galinsky: Let’s say a parent gets a new job that is more demanding of their attention. The family structure hasn’t changed, but now the cooperation might become a little bit more competitive as they compete for that scarce resource. One thing that connects Maurice and me is that I’m a twin and his wife has a twin. [As a twin,] even in the womb, you’re competing for scarce resources. I was born much smaller than my sibling, and there was a weight difference with Maurice’s wife and her twin sister.

As another example, think about Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving starts as the most cooperative day of the entire year. We come together as family and friends. We have an abundance of resources — all of this food — and then we switch, sometimes within an hour of the end of Thanksgiving dinner, into one of the most competitive moments of the year — Black Friday. What is scarce? These incredible deals: two TVs for $30.

What do people do? They literally trample each other to death to try to get one of these TVs. Whether it’s a good deal, whether it’s parental attention, whether it’s water, [the dynamic] changes quickly over time and fundamentally alters social relationships.

Knowledge@Wharton: You also have a lot of leadership examples in the book. How can we take the daily struggles that a leader of a country goes through, which I don’t think a lot of us could really even imagine, and apply them to our lives?

Galinsky: Just take a Presidential debate…. The question is, do I want to break out on my own or do I want to be in step with other people? In one study that I did with some of my colleagues, we analyzed every transcript of every televised debate, and we looked at something really simple: Did [candidates] mimic or was their verbal structure similar to the person who asked them the question or the person who they were responding to, [for example], their opponent? You might think if I really use a different sort of verbal structure, I’m going to show I’m a leader; I’m going to be different. But if I use a similar verbal structure it shows I’m in tune with you — it makes it more smooth and it makes easier for you to process what I say. We showed that people who did more verbal mimicry actually got a higher boost in the polls after the debates.

Now this occurs in every walk of life. For example, studies show that if waitresses mimic the behavior and words of their customers, they get higher tips. If you like leaning back and if I lean back a little bit in my chair and we’re negotiating, I’d get a better deal. If you like leaning forward and I lean forward a little bit toward you, I get a better deal. This mimicry occurs at the presidential level, in restaurants, in negotiations at work — all over the place.

Knowledge@Wharton: You have also drawn from a really wide and deep body of research for this book. You looked at economics, you looked at neuroscience and you looked at animal science. Was there a particular area where you had some particularly surprising findings?

Schweitzer: Both Adam and I ended up being captivated by some of the animal studies…. [For example,] cuckoo birds’ reproductive strategies are actually incredibly competitive. What they do is they hijack a cooperative system. Cuckoo birds will go into other birds like warbler’s nests. They’ll throw out an egg or two off of the warbler’s [nest] and quickly lay their own egg and then leave. The warbler comes back, sees the eggs and takes care of these eggs. When the birds hatch, even though the cuckoo bird might look quite different from the others, they are hardwired to feed every open beak inside their nest. The cuckoo bird has effectively hijacked a very cooperative system in this competitive way….

Knowledge@Wharton: There are examples in the book that seem to contradict a lot of commonly held thinking. Two that really stood out were, first, that teams may actually be better off when they have less talent, and another one is that it’s actually better to be interviewed last for a job whereas we might all think that it’s better to be first. Why is what we think is true not actually the case?

“[With] basketball and baseball, you can really see how one variable — interdependency and the need for coordination — determines whether more talent is always better.”–Adam Galinsky

Galinsky: With the talent example, we call this the Too-Much-Talent Effect. The idea is that when we have a lot of talented people in a group, one of the problems that can occur is it can create what’s called status conflicts. For example, who is really the best person? Who is going to be the alpha person? Who is going to take control? Who is going to dominate? Now sometimes that’s not really a problem at all. Let’s take a sport like baseball. In baseball, more talent is always better. If we get a bunch of people who can get home runs, you’re always going to win more games. If you have a bunch of people who can pitch really well, you’re always going to win. In baseball, I don’t need to coordinate my behavior very much with anyone else…. Now let’s take another sport like basketball. It turns out in basketball, you see this Too-Much-Talent Effect. You really see this phenomenon where at a certain point, talent is helpful, but then it goes down and it actually hurts you.

In basketball, we have to coordinate our behavior incredibly well. When I am shooting, that means you’re not shooting, so therefore, who gets the ball is a scarce resource. In addition, it’s much easier to score if I get the ball in a position close to the basket or there’s not a defender. That means it requires a lot of coordination — like rebounding and defense…. What we found is when teams get above a certain level of talent, they don’t coordinate very effectively, they don’t have a lot of assists, they have more turnovers and their winning percentage actually goes down.

A good example recently was when the Los Angeles Lakers had Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. Their coach said, “I don’t even like watching us play.” No one likes watching an all-star game. All-star games are just people jacking up shots…. The key variable — and this is what really matters — is how much do you and I really have to coordinate? If we have to work together as a team, you can have too much talent, and sometimes you do. You’re better off getting a little bit less talent — less is more. If we don’t have to coordinate at all and we’re just independent people whose talents contribute directly to performance, more talent is always better.

[With] basketball and baseball, you can really see how one variable — interdependency and the need for coordination — determines whether more talent is always better.…

Schweitzer: Related to these structural ideas, you can think about these order effects that you mentioned before, and in many cases, it’s better to go last, particularly when … we’re choosing among a lot of different candidates. If you look at, for example, at American Idol, if you look at ratings of the Olympics, going last is a huge benefit, particularly when the judgments are subjective, where one of the things we’re doing as judges is we’re holding out. We leave room in our first judgments because we want to see if somebody better might come along. By the time we’ve gotten to the end, we no longer need to keep that buffer. Second, there’s a recency effect. That is, our memories are remarkable, but they are limited and we forget things over time.

Our memories are sharpest for the most recent thing. So there are at least two benefits that the last person receives, and you see this play out in a lot of different competitions where it’s often best to go last.

Galinsky: I got really interested in this topic when I was in grad school. I got an interview at the University of Chicago — a great job — and they wanted me to be the first one to come in. In the back of my mind, I [felt] a little apprehensive, but I asked a lot of my professors, and [they said], “Oh, we always want our best candidate to come first.” I went and was the first one who interviewed, and I didn’t get the job…. I realized in my entire five years at Princeton, we had had five job searches, and the last person had gotten hired every time. When I was at Kellogg and I got interviewed there, I was the last person to be interviewed, and I got the job. So you can see how this effect really takes place.

Knowledge@Wharton: Speaking of job interviews, there was also a story in the book about a colleague who used a really interesting exercise right before her interview that actually helped her ace it and this was in your chapter about power. So just tell us a little bit about that.

“There are definitely individual differences, and there are things about a context that can push us one way or another. That is, there are cues in our environment that can easily push us one way or another.”–Maurice Schweitzer

Galinsky: Many years ago I was trying to understand how to study power…. We came up with this manipulation to study it…. We said, “Think about a time when you had power and really recall that experience.” What we found is that if I told Maurice to think about the time he had power, it has the same effect as if I actually made him the boss. One of my former students, Gillian Ku who is now a tenured professor at London Business School, went for an interview. Her first interview was at Harvard, and it didn’t go very well…. She was knocked off her game, and she walked out of there feeling pretty demoralized.

When she goes to do an interview at London Business School, she’s trying to regain that sense of confidence…. She said, “You know what I’m going to do? I’m actually going to do Adam’s experimental manipulation, just see if it would actually get the same effects.” She wrote about a time when she had power — literally, physically wrote it out — to really get into it. Then she was in complete control of the situation, knocking the questions back, answering things. She got the job, and she’s still there to this day….

You can really see how just by taking this reflection and thinking about a time when you had power has this transformative effect.

Schweitzer: There are a lot of great examples but Adam has run hundreds of studies … where this experimental manipulation brings back and creates this psychological sense of power and it’s been incredibly widely adopted.

Knowledge@Wharton: The book stresses that we are both cooperating and competing constantly and simultaneously, but I’m wondering if some people are better at one than the other. If I’m really good at confidence but maybe I don’t always know how to defer or to whom to defer, how can I use the knowledge about which one I’m better at to help me check myself in these situations?

Schweitzer: Some people tend to be cooperators, some people tend to be competitors, and some of us are sort of in the middle, harder to classify. There’s a social value orientation scale that can help us classify people. There are definitely individual differences, and there are things about a context that can push us one way or another. That is, there are cues in our environment that can easily push us one way or another.

Galinsky: You asked really a great question: How do we recognize the fact that there always is this tension where we’re cooperating and competing and that we have to find a balance between these forces? I think about the interview context as a really great one. How do we do well when we’re going for a job interview? We want to express confidence, but we also don’t want to express arrogance. The key balance there is to express confidence as a way to compete well, but also to express some humility as a way to show cooperation. One of the things that Maurice and I really think is valuable about this book is that it allows people to ask themselves the question, “Am I finding the right balance? Am I being exploited because I’m cooperating too much? Am I losing opportunities to make connections because I’m competing too much?” Just by asking ourselves that question periodically — maybe once a month — it gives us a sense of power. It allows us to correct course: “Maybe I need to be a little bit more cooperative to get back more in balance, or maybe I need to toughen up a little bit to get back more into the competitive mode.”

What we hope this book does is allow people to recognize that we’re always cooperating, we’re always competing, and to recognize that tension and also to ask ourselves if we’re finding the right balance.

Schweitzer: A lot of us tell our students to keep a journal for negotiations, and I tell my students after the course ends, “Keep this journal. As you go through life, jot down some things about your negotiation — what you expected, what surprised you and how things ended.” I tell them to look for one thing in particular: If you look back at 10 negotiations, and you find that you’re satisfied with your outcome every single time, you’re probably not setting your goals high enough. If you look back across an arc of negotiations, and you find that you’ve ruptured relationships nine out of 10 times, you’re probably being too competitive. Here we can think about looking for data to help us bring ourselves back into balance.

Knowledge@Wharton: I would think the book has a lot to offer to a manager who is really thinking a lot more deeply about team dynamics and how to deal with them and how to structure things to get the best out of each person.

“If you look back at 10 negotiations, and you find that you’re satisfied with your outcome every single time, you’re probably not setting your goals high enough.”–Maurice Schweitzer

Galinsky: One of the things that is really valuable for managers is this idea of perspective taking. My research shows that people in power aren’t very good perspective takers. …. When [we] have power, we tend to be worse perspective takers. However to be a great manager, to be a great leader, we have to be really good perspective takers….

Schweitzer: We talked about social comparisons before. We compare ourselves with other people, and as a manager, we might think, “Well, OK. Let’s try to make everything equal or let me try to gain trust by creating better transparency.” Gravity Payments made payment information transparent…. They [recently] brought everybody up to equal salaries — a disaster. I would say, a rather predictable disaster. We crave comparisons. We want to know how we’re doing compared to the people around us. That’s how we figure things out in our social world. The salary information is a really key piece of information, and there’s a good reason why we don’t talk about salaries as freely as we might.

Because it’s going to make some people feel absolutely terrible, and when you start moving people’s salaries around, people are going to find inequity. It’s easy for us to justify why I should be paid more or somebody else should be paid less, and it’s an easy source for us to become completely miserable.

Galinsky: In this case, it’s really interesting. [Gravity’s CEO] was motivated by an incredibly well-meaning intention which is, “Some of my employees … are getting paid $35,000. They just can’t pay rent. What if I just move them up to $70,000? Everything’s going to be great. They are going to be able to pay.” Now how do the people who were getting paid $70,000 feel now? They before were getting paid twice as much, and it made them feel like, “I’m twice as valuable.” Maybe they had more valuable jobs, maybe they work a little bit harder. Now they’re like, “It means nothing.” Then … you actually lose some of your best workers because they don’t feel they’re being rewarded for their value. You can see how this fluctuation changes dramatically. By understanding social comparisons we can motivate people sometimes, but we can also undermine them incredibly well without our intention.

Knowledge@Wharton: As a final question, when you’re entering into a relationship with someone, are there certain questions that you can ask to assess the dynamic?

Galinsky: The question that you’re going to want to ask at the beginning of a relationship — also in the middle — is how do I find the right balance between these forces? “How do I recognize what are the competitive forces and what are the cooperative opportunities,” is one way to think about it?…

Schweitzer: This idea of getting off on the right foot is exactly right because when you think about this balance and I think often it’s, you know, starting cooperatively but also, you know, recognizing that tension. In many relationships, we often come to a place where we’ve violated somebody’s expectations. So we can think about how to rebuild our relationship. We talk about an example from Doctors Hospital in Florida where there was a tragic medical error. There was a very young child whose breathing tube had been disconnected during a scan, and because of that error, suffered severe brain damage. After this tragedy, the hospital staff took actions to repair that relationship. They were very candid, they were quick. They apologized immediately, and they took actions to change things at the hospital.

They ended up bringing this family in to become advocates for the hospital, and the parents talked about how these changes were dramatic, how they were committed to making sure this never happened again. They ended up transforming what would be an adversary into an ally. Now there are a couple of interesting things about this. First, there are specific steps that they followed to transform this relationship but second, these steps had been instituted at a policy level from the head administration. That is, they instituted steps to transform these relationships and they were informed by research. The steps they followed had a very predictable outcome. There’s a predictability to how we can transform our relationships to really transform foes into friends and find our balance.

Galinsky: What Maurice said really captures the essence of the book, whether it’s the beginning of a relationship, or whether it’s in the middle of a relationship. Again, ask yourself a couple of questions. One is, have I found the right balance between cooperation and competition? What do they need? Getting back to perspective but also, what do I need? We’re most successful when our needs are being met and your needs are being met simultaneously. Are there areas where I could be exploited? But are there opportunities to make a connection and cooperation? If we periodically ask ourselves those questions — sometimes at the beginning of the relationship, sometimes it’s after a violation has occurred, sometimes it’s just maybe we think the relationship is not humming along as well as it could — it gives us those opportunities.

Whether we’re a parent thinking about a child or a spouse thinking about a partner, whether a friend thinking about a friend, whether a colleague thinking about another colleague, a boss thinking about an employee and vice-versa — asking ourselves these questions are just going to give us so much more control — so much more balance and they’re going to make us so much more successful in life.

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