Podcast: Rivalry in the Palio di Siena

Podcast: Rivalry in the Palio di Siena

With ESSEC Knowledge Editor-in-chief


Julia: Hello everyone, welcome to Be in The Know, the ESSEC Knowledge podcast. Today I’m joined by Elisa Operti, a professor of management, who is going to talk about her research on the Palio di Siena. Thank you for joining me, Elisa!

Elisa: Yes, thank you for having me! I am very glad to share some findings from this project.

Julia: So, in your research you studied jockeys in the Palio di Siena - a rather unusual setting for management research!  This year is extra exciting, because the Palio has not been held the last two years because of COVID. Can you tell me a bit about what the Palio is, and why it was of interest to you for your research?

Elisa: Sure! The Palio is a world-famous horse race that takes place in the city of Siena, Italy, whose origins go back centuries. The Palio takes place annually on the 2nd of July and the 16th of August. Each race entails running three lapses around Piazza del Campo, the main Piazza in the city and involves ten of its seventeen contrade (or city neighborhoods). 

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. What made the Palio interesting from a research standpoint is that the city of Siena features a system of alliances and entrenched, deeply felt rivalries between some of the city neighborhoods, transmitted across generations through images, colors, narratives, and stories. The race and the rival are ever-present topics of discussion in the city. 

A social system characterized by strong rivalries is generally considered at high risk of conflict escalation. However, what we observed in Siena over the centuries is that rivalries have not been detrimental to the economic or social development of the city. Quite the opposite: Siena has been able to thrive for centuries thanks to its social system, being ranked as one of the best places to live in Italy, and achieving excellence in the banking, scientific and sport domain. Thus, Siena seemed an ideal context to address the question: “How can a community characterized by antagonism and deeply felt rivalries reduce the risk of conflict escalation and thrive?”

Julia: Can you share what you found most interesting about your findings? 

Elisa: In study of the determinants of conflict escalation on and off the race track since 1743, based on archival data and interviews, published in Organization Science, we identified some factors that led to conflict escalation or de-escalation. On the one hand, the existence of deeply felt rivalries can trigger incidents or episodes of confrontation. Alliances are also significant drivers of conflict, as they represent channels through which rivalry diffuses and induces confrontation between opposing coalitions. 

On the other hand, we find that personal relationships that cut across the opposing camps are a powerful vehicle of conflict de-escalation. For example, when professional jockeys – key actors in the Senese system - move from one contrada to another, they maintain close personal relationships with the members of their past contrada. The members and captain of the previous contrada get acquainted with the jockey’s family, individuals within the contrade offer their services to the jockey to maintain solid personal bonds. These personal connections keep the system in equilibrium, lowering the likelihood that a jockey leaves to join the rival (these moves are rare!), but reducing the possibility of conflict escalation or violent incidents between camps when such moves occur. In a nutshell, we find that the mobility of talent or key employees - in our case - of professional jockeys is a key factor that can be leveraged to reduce the threat of conflict escalation.

Julia: Your participants were jockeys in a horse race - can you explain how these findings apply to managers in other kinds of workplaces? 

Elisa: The same mechanisms can be studied and leveraged in other contexts, such as business rivalries or rivalries between political camps. Jockeys in Siena are maybe an extreme case of talent offering their services to the contrade (a well paid service, bids can reach 400K€ for a single race for the best ones!). But talent mobility between firms can be observed in business too. Firms tend to think negatively about losing one of their best employees to the opponent, but there is a silver lining: these individuals are those that can be used to reduce the risk of competition wars. Think about IBM and Apple: in the 80s they were arch rivals, but now they even cooperate. One of the reasons for such improved relationships is that Tim Cook, current Apple CEO, is a former employee at IBM. During the 12 years he spent at IBM, he made friendships and connections he can leverage to reduce the escalation of competitive pressure.

Julia: In what other context can we apply your findings? Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

Elisa: We believe that our findings can also be beneficial in other domains, such as politics. In the last few years, we have observed increasing polarization both in the United States and in France. Deep antagonism between rival coalitions moves leaders against each other, hinders cooperation and triggers confrontation between citizens belonging to opposing factions. The risk of conflict escalation is an ever-present threat with sizable detrimental effects on economic outcomes and well-being. 

Our research suggests that individuals belonging to opposing coalitions, who shared past work experiences, connected by friendships, can be the best champions that may overcome the stalemate of a Parliament without a clear majority, as in France nowadays. For example, many of the deputies of Macron’s party come from previous personal experiences working with other parties, either in the socialist or the republican party. Several members of different parties attended the same French school or sent their kids to the same schools. These personal contacts can be leveraged in the coming years to reduce conflict and get things done.

Rivalry is a threat, but is also an opportunity, motivating individuals and driving performance up, as recognized by research conducted by Gavin Kilduff at NYU and his colleagues. Finding ways to control the dark side of antagonism and leverage rivalry for the common good is crucial. The citizens of Siena can show us the way.

Julia: Thank you so much for joining me today, it was fascinating to hear about research conducted in such a unique setting. Until next time! 

 For more information on the topic, take a look at Dr. Operti's research: 

Operti, E., Y. Lampronti, S., & Sgourev, S. V. (2020). Hold your horses: Temporal multiplexity and conflict moderation in the Palio di Siena (1743–2010). Organization Science31(1), 85-102. 

Operti, E., Sgourev, S. V., & Lampronti, S. Y. (2021). Choose Your Enemies Well: Mapping, Managing, and Leveraging Rivalry. California Management Review64(1), 29-46.

Sgourev, S. V., & Operti, E. (2019). From Montagues to Capulets: Analyzing the systemic nature of rivalry in career mobility. Academy of Management Journal62(5), 1333-1357.

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