Staking your office territory

Science knows a lot about how animals mark and defend their territory, but how humans mark and defend their territory is a field far less explored. UBC researcher Graham Brown thinks it could have many practical implications, especially when it comes to how we interact at work.

“The dynamics of an office can be complicated and people often find themselves assuming roles beyond their job description, creating a sense of psychological ownership of a task or an item,” says Brown, assistant professor with the Faculty of Management at UBC’s Okanagan campus. “But how do people come to assume these roles? How do they communicate them? And what happens when someone else ventures into their ‘territory’ or infringes on their role?”

By better understanding territoriality and psychological ownership at work, Brown believes companies could potentially create healthier, more productive work atmospheres.

“My research suggests that in some cases people will actually quit their jobs or resort to sabotage over issues of territoriality,” says Brown. “Or perhaps more commonly, they may become unhappy, stressed, burnt-out, preoccupied, or bring a toxic attitude to work with them. Regardless, any of these scenarios can cost companies time and money.”

One of the specific workplace studies Brown has done examines how territoriality factors into negotiations.
“It’s called the ‘lure the tiger from the mountain’ study,” says Brown. “What that means is that it is harder to defeat the tiger when they are in the mountain. Success is more likely if one can lure the tiger (the negotiation counterpart) from the mountain. In sports, there is the home field advantage. What I’ve done is look at this in terms of negotiation and found that the person who is on home turf is significantly more successful in negotiations.”

In other words, don’t go to the boss’s office to ask for a raise.

As well, Brown recently received a grant from SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) to study creativity and psychological ownership in business.

“There are definitely benefits to feeling ownership,” says Brown. “For example, entrepreneurs and idea-generators will feel ownership over the company, product, or idea and will often be more committed and will work harder for its success than someone else. That is the positive side. But because of these feelings of ownership you might also feel territorial, which means owners may reject feedback if it’s positive, and reject potentially useful negative feedback.

“The general consensus is: feedback is a very important part of creativity and the success of a company, and by understanding this dynamic of territoriality and how it can potentially be an obstacle, small business owners in particular could prosper.”

Brown is also studying leadership succession. After reading an article about leaders who sabotage their own company to prevent the next person in line from succeeding, Brown decided to look at the possible reasons behind the phenomenon.

“My theory is that territoriality plays a role,” he says. “I plan to interview people who have gone through a transition or succession in the past, who are planning to go through one, or who are currently doing so. I want to talk the person leaving and the person receiving the new role and their experiences, whether positive or negative.”

“Given that so many people spend so much time in organizations, the research around territoriality and psychological ownership, although fairly new, is very relevant and hopefully will stimulate more interest in the topic, as everyone experiences it on a day-to-day basis.”

Anyone interested in being part of this study is welcome contact Brown at graham.brown@ubc.ca

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