During my PhD training at Leiden University, I studied group- based reactions to mergers, together with Prof. Naomi Ellemers and Prof. Daan van Knippenberg. We found that even the merger of ad hoc, relatively unimportant task groups triggered a struggle for dominance between the members of both groups, each trying to assert itself as the more influential party after the merger.
Four years of merger research, in which I focused mainly on mapping negative reactions to various merger structures, left me with one nagging question: Is a focus on negative personnel reactions to mergers really the most productive way forward? Organisations do not merge just so that we, social scientists, can figure out how to reduce the threat associated with a merger (although this is certainly important!). They merge because it is expected that the combination of both organisations will have some sort of added value – or ‘synergy’. At the personnel level, this requires that the employees associated with both organisations work well together despite their different backgrounds, so that they can profit from each other’s unique expertise and inspire one another. From this, my research on intergroup helping was born.
Working closely with Dr. Susanne Täuber, my research on intergroup helping soon moved away from the merger context to focus on people’s general willingness to provide help to, or seek help from, members of groups that are different from their own group. We realised that intergroup helping is inherently strategic in nature. Because the groups that we belong to are often important to us, we also care about how our group is seen by other groups. Being Dutch, I feel proud when our football team wins the European Champignonship (although I couldn’t care less about football!), and I feel ashamed when one of our politicians makes international headlines for making racist comments. The act of helping is a perfect way to present your own group in a positive light, as helping is not only seen as kind and generous, but it can also demonstrate how competent you are in a given domain. Across a series of papers and one book chapter, we demonstrate that the desire to present the own group in a positive light is a powerful motive for helping other groups. We also identified a number of other strategic motives, such as the desire to provide meaning to the very existence of our group, the wish to signal to the recipient of help that it is valued and appreciated, or the need to control the recipient of help and assert one’s dominance.
Loyalty and public image
My interest in our concern for the public image or reputation of the groups we belong to has also resulted in research projects unrelated to helping. For example, I studied the effectiveness of various strategies that groups can employ to respond to norm violators or deviants in their midst. Interestingly, this research showed that excluding the deviant from the group, although very effective in cleansing the group’s reputation from the deviant’s actions, backfired because it was simultaneously seen as a sign of disloyalty from the group to one of it’s members. This finding intrigued me. It appears that the level of loyalty groups extend towards their individual members is an important part of our evaluation of those groups! So together with Dr. Astrid Homan, I am currently investigating the effect of employer loyalty on organisational image. Across a serious of experimental studies, we show that knowledge of how loyal an employer is to its employees has a profound impact not only on our perceptions of the organisation’s warmth and attractiveness, but also on its perceived competence and performance. Field research in various commercial companies and two sections of the Dutch army further showed how important employer loyalty is for employees’ own feelings of satisfaction and commitment to the organisation, as well as their self-reported extra-role behaviours and turnover intentions.