Two rival knights face off on a chess board.

Rivalry is a threat that can reinforce fragmentation, but can also create opportunities to build bridges

A distinctive trait of our societies is the presence of entrenched rivalries between opposing social groups.

In contexts as diverse as France, the United Kingdom, or the United States, the antagonism between rival parties or firms motivates confrontation and hinders cooperation between them.

In contexts characterized by deeply felt rivalries, are there factors that can moderate the risk of conflict escalation?

To address this question, we turned to the city of Siena (Italy) to study the social system built around the Palio, the world-famous horse race that originated in the 13th century.

The Palio takes place annually on the 2nd of July and the 16th of August. Each race entails running three lapses around the main Piazza in the city and involves ten of its seventeen contrade (neighbourhoods). The Palio is more than a horse race: it is the galloping heart of a social system that governs the life of the city throughout the year.

The Palio is appropriate for studying conflict due to the network of rivalries and alliances between city neighbourhoods. Rivalry denotes a stable antagonistic relationship between two neighbourhoods, transmitted across generations through images, colours, narratives, and stories.

How does a horse race encourage a productive rivalry?

The race and one’s rival are ever-present topics of discussion in the city. Every neighbourhood does its utmost to win the race or, at the least, to prevent the rival from winning it.

Siena has long been a financial centre, home to the oldest bank in Italy in continuous operation. It is among the top places to live in Italy according to the newspaper “Il Sole24ore”, based on social and economic indicators. It achieved excellence in sports, with its basket team winning the national league between 2006 and 2013.

We were interested to know how Siena has managed to thrive despite the acute social tensions that accompany rivalries between neighbourhoods.

Contrary to what is observed in politics and business, rivalry is not detrimental to the quality of life in Siena. Using archival sources, we identified only 81 episodes of confrontations between rival neighbourhoods in almost three centuries, most of which were relatively minor.

What is it that allows the citizens of Siena to moderate the threat of conflict escalation, and to manage the consequences of rivalry?

To understand the factors that regulate processes of escalation and de-escalation of conflict, we collected data on incidents on and off the racetrack in the period from 1743 to 2011.

On the one hand, our analysis confirmed that the existence of deeply felt rivalries can trigger conflict escalation. Alliances constitute channels through which rivalry diffuses and promotes confrontation between opposite camps.

On the other hand, personal relationships that cut across these opposite camps can be an important instrument of conflict de-scalation.

When professional jockeys move from one neighbourhood to another, they maintain close personal relationships with the past employer. The captain of the past employer has become acquainted with the jockey’s family, residents of that neighbourhood have become personal friends with him.

Such connections keep the system in balance; they decrease the probability that a jockey would depart for one’s rival, but even when such moves occur, the pre-existing social connections preclude the escalation of conflict between the rival neighbourhoods.

The interviews that we conducted in Siena confirm that personal connections that cut across opposite groups, based on marriage, friendship or shared work experience, reinforce the sense of belonging to a community, motivating people to emphasize what brings them together rather than what divides them.

Why are tensions confined to the horse race?

The stakes in the Palio are high and competition for wining the race is inevitably intense. During the race rivalry takes centre stage and can easily inflame tensions on the racetrack or in the stands.

But in the remainder of the year, the personal connections between residents of different neighbourhoods ensures cooperation on issues pertinent to the quality of life in Siena.

An example of such cooperation is presented by the Covid crisis. It compelled the postponement of the Palio for two years, with a detrimental impact on the revenues and morale of the city.

But the pandemic brought old foes together. Cooperation between rival neighbourhoods on health care and social services flourished, putting aside enmities.

This shows that the social polarization that rivalry creates can be moderated with collective effort, and that fragmented communities can successfully mobilize in response to key challenges.

Can the experience of Siena be applied elsewhere?

In politics or business, antagonism is a threat. The rivalry between political factions or business groups can have detrimental consequences for the functioning of democratic systems or the operation of markets.

But connections between opposite camps can help reduce the divide. Consider a famous example. IBM and Apple are arch-rivals, but Tim Cook’s 12 years of work experience at IBM mitigated the tensions between the firms to the point that Apple entered an alliance with IBM in 2012.

Likewise, politicians affiliated with opposite camps, but connected by friendships or coming from the same regions, can serve as “bridges”, helping overcome situations of stalemate or of polarization.

For example, the previous experience of many LREM deputies in other political parties can be leveraged to facilitate cross-party cooperation.

Creating a calendar or a mental map with spaces for confrontation, but also cooperation in pursuing common good, can be very useful. Recent developments in US politics demonstrate that bipartisan initiatives on gun control can take place even in conditions of extreme polarization, when nations confront “grand” challenges.

Communities and political parties need to create “spaces” for such initiatives, allowing to cross entrenched boundaries of different nature.

Rivalry is a threat, but also an opportunity, it can reinforce the fragmentation of a community, but can also help build bridges.

Finding the right balance between cooperation and division, is a great challenge, but as the experience of Siena shows, it is a challenge that can be successfully resolved.

Further reading

Operti, E., Sgourev, S. V., and Lampronti, S. Y. (2021) "Choose your enemies well : mapping, managing, and leveraging rivalry", California Management Review, 64, 1, 29-46

Operti, E., Lampronti, S. Y., and Sgourev, S. V. (2020) "Hold your horses : temporal multiplexity and conflict moderation in the “Palio di Siena” (1743-2010)", Organization Science, 31, 1, 85-102

Shemuel Lampronti is Assistant Professor of Strategy at Warwick Business School. He teaches Strategic Advantage and Strategic Evaluation and Analysis on the Full-Time MBA, Executive MBA, and Distance Learning MBA. He teaches Strategy Analysis and Practice across the WBS Masters programmes.

For more articles on Strategy and Organisational Change sign up to Core Insights here.