On Monday night the University of Kentucky beat the University of Kansas to claim the 2012 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. Didn’t watch it? That’s okay; I wasn’t that interested either. However, this sporting event has given us an opportunity to observe some basic social psychological phenomena in action that have implications not only for sports fanaticism but for the workplace as well.
The phenomena are known as BIRG, or Basking In Reflected Glory, and CORF, or Cutting Off Reflected Failure. Grounded in Social Identity Theory, BIRGing and CORFing represent two strategies people employ to enhance or protect their self esteem. BIRGing occurs when someone attempts to enhance their self esteem or image by aligning themselves with a success or “glory” for which they had little to no role. Often times this behavior or cognition is unintentional and somewhat subtle. In the context of the basketball championship, I have seen plenty of BIRGing from Kentucky fans this week as their tweets, Facebook posts, and water cooler conversations include some reference of “we” in relation to the Wildcats’ win. “We won!” “We played so well!” “We kicked KU’s butts!” We are also more likely to see them sporting their Kentucky apparel. These fans are aligning themselves with Kentucky in order to bask in the reflective glory of being national champions, despite the fact that they did not spend a single minute on the hardcourt defending shooters or sinking three-pointers.
Many of the Kansas fans, on the other hand, have been CORFing, wherein we attempt to distance or separate ourselves from some failure that may have a negative impact on our self esteem, reputation, or self image. Whether intentional or not, we likely hear many Jayhawk fans using the pronoun “they” instead of “we” when referring to the Kansas basketball team. “They couldn’t finish.” “They let Kentucky get too far ahead early on.” “They weren’t strong enough.” Many of those same fans who were likely declaring “We are the best” (BIRGing) after each of the great comebacks KU enjoyed leading up to the final have now turned to CORFing by a simple change in pronoun.
These phenomena are easy to witness within the world of sports, but they also make their mark in the workplace. Within organizations, employees are motivated to align themselves with successful projects and products and distance themselves from failures. Although the point can be made that employees are doing it for the same basic self image benefits, they are also motivated to BIRG and CORF for job security, keeping themselves off the radar in bad times and calling attention to themselves in good times.
Despite the fact that this is a very common and innate tendency, we do tend to see some individual variability in the expression of it and I believe it is often a function of personality. Specifically, I see scores on HDS Bold functioning as a moderator of the expression of BIRG and CORF. Individuals who have higher scores on the Hogan Development Survey scale of Bold tend to have an inflated view of self-worth and are very motivated to protect that image. Our research indicates that our high Bold managers are likely to overstate their accomplishments and blame mistakes and failures on others. Hence, we are likely to see high Bold managers BIRGing and CORFing more often or to a greater extent than your average Joe as they jockey themselves into position for ego-preservation.
Such behavior can erode followership or a productive team atmosphere as others start to recognize that Bold Bob is a fair-weather fan, only aligning himself with us when the going is good and “throwing us under the bus” (trust me, I loathe that phrase too) when we hit some rough patches. An effective leader must be willing to weather the storm, sharing in the collective successes but also standing up for their team when things don’t go to plan. For most, BIRG and CORF can be more difficult to accomplish in the workplace as our affiliation with a particular team or project is often more obvious. Bold Bob and others like him will find a way to do it, though. It may come in the form of claiming to have always disagreed with the failed approach the team took (CORF), or claiming to have been a staunch supporter/leader of a successful project that, in reality, they demonstrated ambivalence toward (BIRG).
In our efforts to develop and coach our Bold managers, we need to cast light on past occurrences of this behavior and the fallout or ramifications it caused. However, we must remember that BIRGing and CORFing are not always intentional and that these managers may not have realized the subtle (and not so subtle) ways they have exhibited it. By helping to create strategic self-awareness of this tendency and the effect it has on team relations, we can hope to curb its prevalence. Only then can we hope for them to be more like my non-Bold colleague and staunch Kansas fan who owned the big loss in her Facebook post, stating “Well played Kentucky...you deserve it. Love that our Jayhawks fought the whole way though...what a ride! Rock Chalk!”