Henning Piezunka, Wonjae Lee, Richard Haynes and Matthew Bothner have conducted a unique empirical study regarding how and why conflict can erupt between two individuals at times. They hypothesize that conflict is more likely to escalate between two people if they have similar status. They describe this condition in which people are at very similar levels in the organizational pecking order as "structural equivalence." They explain:
Unlike those in obviously hierarchical relations—manager and subordinate, for example, or professor and student—for whom norms of deference are fixtures of the social background, dyads marked by structural equivalence are susceptible to ambiguous conceptions of their relationship and thus to incompatible rules for interaction. Competition for deference and status may then escalate dangerously,
The scholars developed a novel approach to testing their hypothesis. They decided to study Formula One drivers competing in Grand Prix events in hopes of being crowned World Champion. The researchers collected data on 732 races from 1970 to 2014. They measured conflict by identifying the incidences of race-ending collisions between drivers. The scholars measured structural equivalence by examining past performance. If two drivers had performed in a very similar fashion in past seasons, then they were rated as more "equivalent" than if one driver had a far superior record to a peer. Sure enough, the results confirmed their hypothesis. Collisions occurred more frequently among drivers of simliar status (i.e. past performance).
What's the lesson for leaders? Be aware of situations in which lines of authority as well as roles and responsiblities may be ambiguous. We often bash hierarchy as ineffective and stifling. However, this research supports the findings of a series of recent studies demonstrating some important benefits to a clear hierarchy. In particular, dysfunctional conflict is less likely to arise when people understand clearly where they stand in a pecking order. When people are vying to be the "alpha dog," you could have real trouble. One such study, for instance, found that NBA teams with clear status hierarchies tended to outperform those where you had a group of players more similar in status. Do not mistake these results though. They do not suggest that we should have command and control organizations. They simply suggest that some clear delineation of roles and authority reduces the risk of destructive conflict.