Survive and Thrive: Why Leaders Must Foster a Culture of Cooperation

January 9, 2018 • 6 minute read • by Saeed


“The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.” ~ Bertrand Russell

The current world population of 7.6 billion is expected to reach 8.6 billion in the next decade, 9.8 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100. The global middle class alone is set to grow from 2.5 billion people to 5 billion people in 2030.

Minimally, our rates of consumption will increase while our natural resources become more stressed. Business (and life) as usual is not sustainable. Competition and the mindset of self-interest is not sustainable.

The Social Instinct to Cooperate

Are people intuitively selfish or intuitively cooperative? Harvard researchers Rand, Greene and Nowak took up this challenge and drew a fascinating conclusion: People have an initial impulse to behave cooperatively but with continued reasoning, become more likely to behave selfishly. In other words, we have a natural instinct to cooperate but given time to think about it, our self-interest kicks in. This has wide reaching implications from our personal relationships to our team building efforts to our current political divide.

Carol Dweck has spent decades at Stanford studying how behaviors are affected by what she calls a growth mindset. In a nutshell, her research has shown that people who believe their intelligence can be developed do better in life vs. those that believe intelligence is fixed.

A Stanford-led research team of psychologists put that theory to test with one of the most entrenched conflicts in modern history. Israel and Palestine have lost untold decades and lives over disputed territories. The mutual distrust between the two groups means they can’t work cooperatively on solving their issues.

The researchers found that by teaching Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli teenagers that groups are generally capable of change—without ever mentioning a specific adversary— significantly improved their ability to cooperate. When the teenagers did not know about the political affiliation of the other, their perception and willingness to cooperate shifted significantly.

The Evolutionary Reason to Cooperate

Cooperation is not unique to humans. It’s not even unique to animals. Cooperation is part of nature. It starts at the cellular level. Life, from its beginning more than three billion years ago, took over the planet by networking and cooperation, not by combat and competition. This is the hopeful conclusion of a small but vibrant renaissance in the scientific community around the concept of cooperation and networks.

The reason why is simple. According to evolutionary biologists, cooperation is one of the most important and beneficial behaviors on Earth. We literally would not be here without it.

Humans, plants, and animals are made up of cells that learned to cooperate long ago. Together they formed multi-cellular organisms, increasing each individual cell’s chances of replication and survival in the process. From these biological building blocks, cooperation prevails at every level of the animal kingdom: Ants that move in formation; mutual inter-species grooming rituals; small birds protecting each other from predators; bats that share food to survive; and humans who co-edit Wikipedia articles and form lines for the bathroom. These are all examples of cooperative behaviors that have evolved as a result of the benefit we inherit from their practice.

Cooperation at Work

Cooperation seems at odds with what many people assume are the basic forces of Darwinian evolution. After all, only the strongest survive.

At the most basic level, cooperation is best defined as individuals working together in order to create a benefit for an entire group. Working together had an evolutionary purpose in that it allowed our ancestors to form strong groups thereby fostering maximal survival. Cooperation leads to social cohesion. It leads to innovation.

But people will cooperate with one another even when they have nothing to gain. That’s called altruism. Altruistic behaviors are as natural to humans as are competitive ones. It’s just that under particular circumstances and given certain personality traits, one or the other will prevail.

That means leadership and culture have a huge role to play in fostering cooperation in the workplace. The main barrier to more companies getting on board is not an objection to the principles or potential outcomes of cooperation, but rather, inertia.

The competitive edge in any business can be enhanced when an employer is able to build up a highly motivated, dedicated and efficient team of employees to serve their customers. To have an effective workplace cooperation mechanism in place is one of the means to achieve this end. To foster a cooperation mindset, is the other. For workplace cooperation to be effective, leadership commitment is crucial. In my experience, many leaders consciously or unconsciously actually encourage behaviors that undermine cooperation.

Shifting a business model away from a traditional competitive model to something more cooperative requires a real transformation in the way a business thinks and operates. It takes time, energy and effort and it takes communicating the value of the shift towards cooperation both internally to employees and externally to customers. Doing so, is a worthy investment which will bring enormous benefits to the enterprise in terms of enhanced efficiency, productivity and competitiveness. It starts with hiring and on-boarding practices that seek out and foster a cooperative mindset and spans to coaching mentoring and performance management practices that reward and nurture cooperation.

I believe that cooperative social organization, be it in the workplace or in society at large, that nurture networks of communication, encourage sharing and experimentation, and foster a climate of mutual support where a cooperative mindset can flourish, is the only way to solve society’s most pressing problems. In other words, cooperation is vital to our survival as a species.

What do you think?

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Last thing, if you liked this post, consider checking out my other recent posts for inspiration and concrete actions steps to become more effective at work and life.

Best,

Saeed

©2017 – All Content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A.

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