Want to pull workers with different views or goals together to a common cause?
Give them a common enemy, a study suggests.
"Even if people can't agree on who they are and what they want, they can generally agree on who or what they are not," says psychologist Chen-Bo Zhong, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, who carried out the study with Prof. Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University and Miguel Unzueta, an assistant professor at UCLA.
"Simply reminding people of what they are not can transform attitudes toward different groups, shift loyalties and preferences, and thus drive coalition-building."
The study focused on "negational identity"- accentuating the negative by creating a common identity around what you are not.
It was related to voter preferences in this year's U.S. presidential primary campaign. But Prof. Zhong says the phenomenon also applies in the working world, where different groups and hierarchies and people with competing interests need to be aligned to encourage teamwork, work toward common causes and overcome other motivation and productivity issues.
In the study, a group of randomly selected Asian students was split into two groups. Members of one group were asked to write affirmative essays about how their ethnic identity had affected their life in the United States; the other group was asked to write negative essays about how not being part of the Caucasian majority had affected their life in the U.S. A similar test was held with Latino students.
Afterwards, they were asked whether they preferred Sen. Hillary Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama in the Democratic primary.
Among both the Asian and Latino students who wrote affirmatively about their ethnic identity, an overwhelming majority favoured Ms. Clinton over Mr. Obama, who is of mixed race. Conversely, among those who wrote negatively about Caucasian dominance, the majority picked Mr. Obama over Ms. Clinton.
"What you are doing is aligning people who are not the dominant group into a coalition in which they feel more power," explains Prof. Zhong.
"By saying 'we are ... in the same situation,' " it is easier to build consensus among those people who otherwise might not see themselves as having much in common, he says.
A simple office example is a team in which one person is so dominant that no one else can individually influence the team's decisions.
If you are one of those feeling left out, you could rally others who feel the same frustration by getting them to agree that they don't like the dominant person's approach, Prof. Zhong suggests. Collectively, the group can exert influence and gain power over decisions.
"Being not a member of that dominating group can give the minority something in common and the desire to have their ideas heard," he says.
But you should use such tactics sparingly in interoffice politics, he warns, because setting up an us-versus-them situation can create a split in the organization.
Much more effective would be using "negational identity" to unite everyone against an outside enemy, such as a competitor, Prof. Zhong suggests.
"This can increase the corporate identify by saying: 'We're not like the competitors, we have our own brand and we're all in this together,' " he says. "As in war, you can identify strongly with someone when you share a common enemy."