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How to Better Engage Employees with the Science of Cooperation

By Melissa J. Anderson

For centuries, we’ve operated under the belief that humans are, in general, self interested – that we are selfish creatures, out for personal gain. And workplaces have structured compensation and promotion schemes around this belief.

But new research is showing that this notion is false – that, in fact, human beings are more keen to cooperate with one another than we are to fight, and that professional situations marked by competition are more likely driven by a cultural context of self-interest than an inherently biological one.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Yochai Benkler, Jack N. and Lillian R. Berkman Professor for Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School and codirector of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, discussed our cooperative nature.

In fact, he writes, companies could be more productive with corporate cultures that embrace the science of cooperation. He explains:

“…using controls or carrots and sticks to motivate people isn’t effective. We need systems that rely on engagement, communication, and a sense of common purpose and identity. Most organizations would be better off helping us to engage and embrace our collaborative, generous sentiments than assuming that we are driven purely by self-interest. In fact, systems based on self-interest, such as material rewards and punishment, often lead to less productivity than an approach oriented toward our social motivations.”

Here’s how.

The Biology and Culture of Cooperation

According to Benkler, people are a lot more cooperative than we give them credit for – sure, there are people who are only out for themselves, he writes, but new studies are showing that people, by nature, behave cooperatively.

He explains, “Evolutionary biologists and psychologists have found neural and possibly genetic evidence of a human predisposition to cooperate.”

Additionally, our brains are wired to work with one another – rather than for ourselves.

“Neuroscience also shows that a reward circuit is triggered in our brains when we cooperate with one another, and that provides a scientific basis for saying that at least some people want to cooperate, given a choice, because it feels good. Kevin McCabe and his collaborators have shown that people are rewarded when they trust others; James Rilling and his team have demonstrated that our brains light up differently when we are playing with another human being than they do when we are using a computer.”

Additionally, he said in an experiment based on the prisoner’s dilemma, outcomes showed that framing was key to how people behaved. If they were told the activity was called the “Wall Street Game,” the majority acted in their own self-interest. But when they were told it was the “Community Game” the majority behaved pro-socially. Context matters big-time, and framing a culture around cooperation can have a big impact on behavior.

Using the Unselfish Gene to Build a Cooperative Culture

Because of our centuries-old reliance on the selfish-human model, Benkler says, modern organizations operate around self-interested motivation structures. He writes:

“For decades, economists, politicians, legislators, executives, and engineers have built systems and organizations around incentives, rewards, and punishments to get people to achieve public, corporate, and community goals. If you want employees to work harder, incorporate pay for performance and monitor their results more closely. If you want executives to do what’s right for shareholders, pay them in stock.”

But we now know that this kind of self-motivated approach runs counter to human nature. As a result, he says, companies are still operating on an outmoded culture of self-interest – and that maybe harming productivity.

Instead, he writes, “We need systems that rely on engagement, communication, and a sense of common purpose and identity.”

Benkler identifies seven key factors in building more cooperative corporate cultures.

  • Communication – the ability to share information is key.
  • Framing and Authenticity – the context of collaboration can influence behavior, but it must be authentic (rather than just lip-service).
  • Empathy and Solidarity – the more closely knit the group, the more likely they are to behave cooperatively.
  • Fairness and Morality – ensuring that the rewards for prosocial behavior are distributed fairly is important to keeping cooperation going strong.
  • Rewards and Punishments – rewards must appeal to intrinsic motivations – rather than simply be cash-based.
  • Reputation and Reciprocity – the desire to build individual reputations for sharing and cooperation is important .
  • Diversity – cooperative systems need to recognize that everyone has unique motivations, and be flexible enough to play to them.

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