Improve capacity for collaboration by understanding and embracing social identity (with some help from the Outlaw Biker world)
“No Colors, No Helmets”. Outside a bar or two in your town, there’s likely a sign containing that pronouncement. The message is simple. Understanding its significance is more complicated, but will allow you to employ a unique, admittedly eccentric approach to improving capacity for collaboration. Improving personal capacity, and that of the teams you may belong to and collaborate with. By extension, you’ll unlock the potential for more productive meetings, effective and transparent communications, time savings, and results. Maybe even have a little more fun while you’re at it.
Let’s begin our journey by examining “Colors”. In the 1940’s, veterans returning from WWII established and joined motorcycle clubs, in large part to replicate the camaraderie they felt on the battlefields. These organizations provided a sense of adventure with like-minded individuals, and a supportive environment for those suffering from what we now refer to as PTSD.
In the Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism, Harris (2012), remarking on the fierce commitment of biker club members, states that “people are drawn to groups which provide meaning and relieve anxieties. Collective ideologies provide a sense of identity, endorse a set of moral values (or immoral ones), encourage loyalty, and provide meaning to existential issues.”
These early clubs – partly in homage to regimental uniforms – instituted mandatory dress, or Colors. These Colors consisted of cut-off vests festooned with territorial identifiers, club titles, personal nicknames, and of course the club logo, or “patch”. The Colors were a source of pride, identity, fearsomeness, and strength. A leather version of a LinkedIn profile if you will. One of my favorite patches, from the “Wino” Willie Forkner founded Boozefighters, is shown below.
Modern “Outlaw” Biker Clubs, who undeniably have more sinister motivations, were formed in a similar manner. The function of their Colors also remains the same. In fact, the Hells Angels “fly” red and white Colors drawn from the Third Pursuit Squadron of the United States Air Force, the Bandido’s red and gold from the Marine Corps. We’ll soon go deeper and darker into team social identity, but one’s club Colors are a statement of membership, and more importantly confirmation of belonging.
Helmets in this context are much simpler to explain. They are, as we all know, designed to secure and protect while riding one’s motorcycle. However, off the bike and in less than genial social situations they can be effective, shall we say, punch-enhancers.
Now that you have the basics of Colors and helmets, let’s continue. Our next step is to discover why those items are singled out, their presence discouraged, and how increasing our understanding of them can improve collaborative capacity.
COLORS RAISE CONCERNS
The concern of your local bar owner is not the Colors themselves, who’s wearing them, or what they represent. Generally, camaraderie, brother/sisterhood, and a gathering of harmonious patrons benefit beer sales and business. His or her fear lies in what can happen when Colors interact with others. Fear of when two or more individuals, clubs, or (gasp!) teams, with even marginally contrasting but fervent social identities, “collaborate” unacceptably in a social setting. This is the author’s long-winded way of saying the proprietor is terrified that rivals will beat each another and break things.
In May of 2015, a restaurant in Waco, Texas hosted a gathering of bikers that included members of the Bandidos, rival Cossacks, and other affiliated clubs. After someone “had their foot run over”, the encounter devolved into a shootout, leaving nine bikers dead, eighteen wounded or injured, and over 150 arrested. According to investigators, an element of the dispute centered on the right of certain clubs to wear Colors decorated with Texas patches, with the dominant Bandidos claiming the right to approve all such geographic identifiers. Twenty-seven dead or wounded over a sore foot and some fabric. Why? Colors and social identity, that’s why. More specifically, the passion and intensity with which they are defended.
In Daniel Wolf’s incredible ethnographic study, The Rebels, this is further illuminated by “Brother Tramp”, a member of the Alberta-based Rebels Motorcycle Club, who said “When you get right down to it, a bar room brawl is good for morale.” Tramp is quite correct, a brawl might be beneficial for team morale, and in some way you might relate. Not to the Waco-level senselessness of course, but we’ve all participated in a cubicle, or conference room version of a biker battle. Maybe, like Tramp, even enjoyed it a little.
That all being said, from our proprietor’s point of view these clashes raise a myriad of concerns, and diffusing the driving forces behind them becomes a high priority for making a living. He or she is aware that each evening, a consistent level of serenity is required from all participants, hopefully without exception. Good-natured interactions are preferred, and effectual communications encouraged above the loud, likely pounding music. Helmet-swinging (or worse) might be exhilarating to Tramp and his buddies, but when one looks beyond the bruises, efficiency plummets, operational costs increase, delays occur, and profit withers. Taken to the extreme, it just might close the place down for good.
What this means I’m sure you can infer, is that for better or worse, collaborative capacity and business performance are inextricably linked.
So, we’ve now obtained the basics of Colors and helmets, and recognize why that sign is outside the entrance. In the context of your various collaborative activities, does this have some degree of familiarity? Are various sets of Colors strutting around your office? Do co-workers bring metaphorical helmets to meetings? Might you also need a sign?
MORE ON SOCIAL IDENTITY – COURTESY OF THE SATAN’S CHOICE M.C.
In their research on motorcycle club intergroup behavior, Tajfel and Turner (1979) state that “groups develop an us-versus-them perspective of social categorization, which can lead to antagonism.” Quinn and Forsyth (2011) continue, outlining that “swift, annihilative retribution is the normative response to any affront to a club or member”, and that “concern with upholding group honor is a long-standing biker value, critical to group dynamics and individual behavior.” Antagonism. Retribution. Upholding Honor. Dramatic stuff to be sure. However, one could likely find a few cases (at least!) of antagonistic or retributive behavior in our own professional endeavors.
Mick Lowe, in his book Conspiracy of Brothers, provides a violent but suitable illustration of this behavior. It begins in Port Hope, Ontario during October 1978, with an account of the point-blank killing of a rival by a member of the Satan’s Choice Motorcycle club. Making a decades-long story short, the shooter believed that during a hotel bar dispute his Brothers were themselves in danger of being shot. After a sequence of tense interactions, he took what he believed to be decisive and appropriate action, defending his brothers, himself, and the club honor.
There are two unusual aspects of the Port Hope case. First, as a result of some truly dreadful investigative work, the shooter avoided any charges. Second, six other Satan’s Choice members were charged and convicted in the crime – four of second-degree murder with no chance of parole for ten years and two others of first-degree murder, which typically means a minimum twenty-five-year term.
Most astounding is that not one of the six convicted members, knowing the truth might set them free, collaborated with investigators and fingered the trigger man. Not before trial, during trial, or at any point during their lengthy incarcerations. Loyalty, strength of identity, and unwillingness to collaborate all taken to the extreme (and to prison).
Similarly, John Megson, an officer in the England-based Druids Motorcycle Club became a biker legend under similar circumstances. After being wrongly accused of stabbing a man to death at a party, he refused to give evidence at his trial, despite knowing which of his fellow club member was responsible. Despite desperate pleas from his family, Megson remained true to his club. He was given a mandatory life sentence with a minimum term of fifteen years. Defense of the Brotherhood, to the point where cooperation with police, even family, is rejected.
TAKING ACTION AGAINST COLORS…OR NOT
By this point you might be thinking there’s a whole bunch of negative energy in this article. You likely sense that the author is suggesting that you, and the teams you belong to have characteristics similar to Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs. If that’s the case, you’re correct on both accounts.
Well, we could draft up and sign some touchy-feely-pseudo-contract (you know the ones), stating that we’re all conscious of our “Personal Colors”. Agree that they can generate horribly negative outcomes, depending on where, when and how they (and our helmets) are utilized. Promise to play nice together, even though we know we won’t, and maybe even hold hands and sing a bullshit song or two. If you think this plan is peachy, a) we will never be close friends, and, b) my instruction to you at this point will seem peculiar:
Do nothing. Don’t change.
Instead, embrace your Colors. Why fight the power of social identity? Why battle bonds so intense that men murder to protect, and spend decades in prison preserving?
Further, understand them as best you can. Develop them, make them stronger. Discuss them with your team often. If there’s confusion, settle it. Put it all down on paper if you’d like. If you want to go overboard, create a motto. A corporate version of the Bandidos “We are the people our parents warned us about”, or the Mongols “Respect few. Fear none.” Shape the Colors of others if you’re able and share your knowledge of their meaning and power.
Biker Lorne Campbell, in his life story Unrepentant, impressed with the Oakland Hells Angels chapter, remarked “You fuck with one Oakland member, you fuck with them all, and when they rode somewhere, you know it’s Oakland. You just don’t fuck with Oakland.” There’s tremendous power in this statement, from a man who doesn’t impress easily. Strength, prestige, mystique, authority, and an air of unwavering loyalty and dedication. If you or your team feel like the Oakland Hells Angels rolling down the freeway, that’s a good thing. Use it to your advantage.
Returning to our objective of improving capacity to collaborate, there’s one final step. Now that you and your team possess newfound self-awareness and confidence about your identity, be cool. Relax, since with this confidence comes ability. Ability, and maybe even some responsibility, to set your Colors aside. Leave them in the parking lot (your helmets too, please), knowing that collaboration – when you really think about it, a truly modest and innocuous activity – can’t dilute them or reduce their strength. Bar room brawls are beneath you.
Of course, as you might imagine this will take effort and also a measure of composure. Ignore provocations and poor conduct – remember that others don’t yet possess your understanding of Colors and the behaviors they activate. Take the higher road, and also take comfort that your Oakland-like swagger won’t desert you when you do. Fly your Colors often but have the self-assurance to take them off at appropriate times. Pause your social identity without fear of betraying your brothers, sisters, and the honor of your club.
Finally, there’s an added benefit for those you’re collaborating with, who will immediately recognize and ultimately respect your confident and calm approach. In my experience, they will set their Colors aside as well, and come along for the ride.
Have a good time at the bar.
Edwards, Peter (2013). Unrepentant: The Strange and (Sometimes) Terrible Life of Lorne Campbell, Satan’s Choice and Hells Angels Biker. Toronto: Random House Canada.
Harris, K.J. (2012). The fierce commitment to 1% motorcycle clubs. Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism. Taylor & Francis.
Lowe, Mick (2013). Conspiracy of Brothers. A true story of bikers, murder, and the law. Toronto: Vintage Canada.
Quinn, J.F., & Forsyth, C.J. (2009). Leathers and Rolexes: The symbolism and values of the Motorcycle club. Deviant Behavior, 30(3), 235-265.
Tajfel, H., & Turner, J.C. (1979). The social psychology of intergroup relations (2nd ed.). Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers.
Wolf, D.R. (1991). The Rebels: a brotherhood of outlaw bikers. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.