Every group of humans who are united for whatever reason… maybe co-workers, maybe a street gang, maybe a clique in high school, maybe even fellow travellers united by snarky Facebook posts… all yearn for that sense of togetherness, of strengthened social bonds. What the military might call “Unit Cohesion.”
However, unit cohesion is further divided into task cohesion (completing a team-based task efficiently) and social cohesion (strong social bonds based on commitment to the group’s core values). Most leaders would like to have both attributes high in their group: No social cohesion may undermine trust and affect the team’s efficiency during an emergency, and no task cohesion will leave you with a social club that is mired in corruption. However, these two goals may sometimes come into conflict given the right circumstances and personalities involved. I would like to illustrate my point with a fictional account of a fan club.
Imagine a small town. In this small town are three friends: Alice, Brenda, and Charlie (A, B, & C). They all share one thing in common, a love of Pittsburgh Penguin Sidney Crosby. So much so that they formed the local chapter of the Sidney Crosby Fan Club to extoll the virtues of Sidney Crosby to the public at large, but is really just an excuse for three friends to meet in the pub every second Thursday and chat about hockey over a few pints.
One night, Alice proposes a toast over their beers: “I would like us to raise our glasses and drink to Sidney Crosby, the best player on the Pittsburgh Penguins!” Everyone raises their glasses with murmurs of “to Sid” before imbibing.
Then Brenda proposes a toast: “To Sidney Crosby, the best player in the NHL!” Charlie is enthusiastic, but Alice was hesitant for half a second. She finds that a bold statement, but she really doesn’t have the stats on hand to compare, and this IS the Sidney Crosby Fan Club after all and she doesn’t want to make waves, so she says “What the hell, best in the NHL. I’ll agree with that,” and downs her beer.
Next is Charlie’s turn. Charlie doesn’t think he has a lot going for him right now, and he doesn’t feel like he’s particularly good at anything except being a fan of Sidney Crosby. His wardrobe is mostly Penguins merchandise. His home is filled with artwork and bobble heads and any number of assorted objects that have some connection to Crosby and/or the Penguins. He once verbally insulted a stranger who had the audacity to wear a Philadelphia Flyers jersey in his presence.
Charlie stands up, raises his beer glass and says, “My friends, let us hoist a drink to the best hockey player, not only in the history of the NHL, but in all of human history including those centuries when it was played exclusively on frozen ponds!”
This causes Brenda to pause a bit, but she goes along anyways because it’s not a big deal and she just wants everyone to get along anyways. Alice, however, takes issue. “Charlie,” she says, “I get that you love Sidney, everyone here does. But when you make outrageous statements like that it makes us look like fanatics and we could lose legitimacy in the eyes of other fan clubs and the Penguins organization. I mean, best in the history of the NHL? You’re old enough to remember Gretzky. And that stuff about frozen ponds? That’s a pretty big claim to make when you can’t prove it one way or the other. C’mon, man, dial it back a bit.”
Charlie, surprised that he’s getting any pushback in trying to be the Best Crosby Fan Ever in a Sidney Crosby fan club, lays into Alice for her lack of commitment to the group’s values. “You either love Sidney Crosby with all of your heart or you don’t. This club has no room for someone who questions the greatness of Sid the Kid!” Clearly Charlie feels that Alice should emulate him more if she wishes to be taken seriously as a fan, and if she can’t do that then she should shut up before her negativity rubs off on Brenda.
Speaking of Brenda, she is the tie-breaking vote as to whether the Sidney Crosby Fan Club is to be inclusive so Alice can stay, or pure so that only the true believers benefit from membership. Who will win her loyalty: Alice or Charlie?
I submit to my readers that it entirely depends on what kind of season Sidney Crosby is having. If he is playing at the top of his game, and his excellence is on display for all to see, Brenda will side with Alice because there is nothing to lose.
However, If Sid the Kid is having a lousy season, plagued with injuries, missed opportunities and lost games, it will be because he is not enjoying the full support of his fans due to watered-down enthusiasm. The dissenters need to go if they cannot fully commit to showing as much love as possible. In those circumstances, I am not only confident that Brenda will choose Charlie, she will even vilify Alice and stop being friends outside of the fan club… depending on how much she wants to please Charlie in his role of leading the charge to bolster their hero.
If the task of the Sidney Crosby Fan Club was to inform the masses of the awesomeness of Sidney Crosby, or even if the goal was as unambitious as providing friends with a chance to hang out over beers and discuss hockey, then siding with Alice will manifest task cohesion. However, the disagreement between Alice and Charlie might make for some socially awkward moments and make things so tense that new members might shy away, thus destroying social cohesion.
If Brenda sides with Charlie, then an orthodoxy of thought is prioritized over the ability to function as a club, and any new members have to pass an ideological test lest doctrine becomes watered down, thus compromising task cohesion in favour of social cohesion.
The remarkable thing is that Charlie has no plan or grand strategy for becoming the de facto leader of the club. He’s just an insecure guy whose insecurities drive him to position himself as deserving to be in a club that is the only source of meaning in his life. He sees himself as an influencer, not a leader, and as such is not concerned about the consequences of decisions made due to his influence. It’s not his problem if people listen to him, he’s just another member like everyone else.
Remember folks, it’s the power we deny, or are unaware we have, that we ultimately abuse.