Keeping Enemies Close

“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer” ~ Sun-Tzu

Using one of the most appropriate opening quotes, Nicole Mead and Jon Maner published an artcile in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology trying to understand if and why group leaders prefer to be closer to their “enemies.” Most research indicates the human tendency is to avoid or attack perceieved threats, yet Sun-Tzu and observation indicates the opposite is true regarding ingroup threats. Why are group dynamics different?

Researchers point out that groups have,

an implicit social contract between leaders and followers, whereby group members give up resources in exchange for a leader who acts in the best interest of the group. Using their power to harm or unwantonly expel valuable group members would betray this implicit contract, and could thus increase the chance that leaders are stripped of their power and privilege.

For this reason, leaders are inclined to monitor and suppress rival behavior, rather than behave aggressively. Reseachers propose that because social groups are malleable, leaders who want to maintain their position will prefer close proximity rather than separation from threats. This would allow the leader to keep an eye on the rival, making sure the leader can monitor behavior and undercut the rival’s accomplishments. Researchers predict that when given the choice, people in leadership positions will “seek proximity to ingroup competitors, as a way to control and downregulate the threat that those ingroup members pose.”

However, Mead and Maner propose three conditions that could mediate this effect:

  • Power-related Motives — Individuals high in dominance motivation (the tendency to “attain influence through force and selfish manipulation of group resources”) should be more interested in maintaining their power over others and will have a strong desire for close proximity to any rivals.
  • Instability of Group Hierarchy — Individuals should seek proximity to ingroup competitors when the group hierarchy was unstable and they felt their position threatened.
  • Intergroup Competition — When intergroup competition is apparent, individuals will focus more on group success than on possible usurpation of their position and will be less inclined to seek proximity towards potential rivals.

To test these hypotheses, participants filled out two scales (the remote associates task — allegedly to determine skill level — and the Achievement Motivation Scale — to determine power-related motives) and were assigned either the leadership position or equal authority (control condition) in a group task. In addition, researchers manipulated the perceived presence of rivals, possibility of losing leadership position, and awareness of intergroup competition. Researchers then let participants decide on the setup for the group task, and measured the participant’s proximity to the rival.

Across three experiments, Mead and Maner confirmed their hypotheses that individuals seek proximity when they are high in dominance motivation, are in an unstable group hierarchy, and do not perceive intergroup competition. Interestingly, even when participants were told that it was beneficial to the group to separate members, leaders who felt their role threatened continued to desire close proximity.

So what? The present research shows that the ingroup threats are often handled by increasing proximity rather than open aggrssion.  However, this desired proximity to the rival can still be detrimental to the group in that members are unable to fully contribute or are limited by the forced proximity. This could suggest that the underlying power struggles may be more damaging to a group than open agression towards other members, since open aggression would elicit group response to amend the leadership issue. Future research could study how this dynamic might affect currect social groups, and conditions under which forced proximity (in conditions where proximity is detrimental) elicits group reaction.

Research Article:

Nicole L. Mead1 and Jon K. Maner2 (2012)
1Católica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics; 2Florida State University
On Keeping Your Enemies Close: Powerful Leaders Seek Proximity to Ingroup Power Threats
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 576-591


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