Posted by: kenwbudd | September 4, 2009

The Development of Co-operative Behaviour

I trust you have read my blog on the Lack of Trust between Staff and Management and you are now looking for ways to improve this situation. Let’s start with an easy question first.

Do you want more cooperation from your staff or from your manager? Of course you do! Well, rewarding the helpful, positive behaviour is always more effective than punishing the negative actions of perceived ‘wrongdoers’.

The results from a new experiment in one of my favourite topics, Game theory , helps to confirm or re-affirm our views on this.

The experiment is based on an interactive public goods game. Players choose whether or not to contribute money to a common pot. The pot is multiplied and redistributed equally, regardless of who contributes and who doesn’t.

When people play a pure version of the game, the temptation to freewheel or reap the rewards without contributing anything, often leads to rapidly disintegrating cooperation. It sets up a tit-for-tat response.

Previous research found that cooperation is promoted by allowing players to punish slackers and freeloaders: cooperative players would pay a small cost that enables them to inflict a loss on the offender. This approach was more effective than providing a reward, in short term relations i.e. in games where players switch partners every round.

More carrot, less stick
David Rand and his colleagues at Harvard University modified the public goods game to better reflect, what they describe as, a more natural scenario: people play with the same group for many rounds, establishing longer term relationships and their own reputations within the group.

Players could choose to reward or punish others, at a small cost to themselves. Rand found that rewarding or punishing were equally likely to lead to a more cooperative response and therefore, higher earnings for all, but when players had the option to either punish or reward, but chose to reward, they received even higher absolute payoffs. “It becomes in one’s self-interest to help, assist and support the group,” says Rand.

It’s a symbiotic behaviour that Rand explains as ‘you scratch the group’s back and It’ll scratch yours’,” he says.

Money for nothing – No Free Lunch!
Sam Bowles at the Santa Fe Institute, New Mexico, cautions that Rand’s game does not accurately reflect real economies. He points out, for example, that under Rand’s rules the rewarder pays $4 and the rewardee “magically” receives $12. He calls this an unnatural scenario. “If you take away the free lunch, it doesn’t work,” says Bowles.

Disproportionate rewards often occur when we spend time, effort and money assisting people around us: helping a friend to move furniture, for instance, or recommending a colleague for promotion.

Actions like these may have a smaller cost to us than the benefit they provide others. These sorts of productive interactions and positive co-operative behaviours, are fundimental building blocks of our society and should not be disregarded, dismissed or underestimated.

Where’s the Benefit?
Co-operative behaviours do not always have an immediate or quantifiable payback, normally but they do form part of a ‘chain’ of co-operative behaviours that begins when 2 people first meet.

Generally speaking, on first meeting, 2 people can either;

  • a) form a mutual allegiance or friendship and therefore commit to support each other when and if they can. A sense of altruism is visible from the beginning, on both sides.
  • b) a mutually supportive relationship does not form or is only sustainable for a very short period, before a ‘conflict of interests’ occurs and the ‘partnership’ is quickly dissolved.
  • c) a dominant agressive role is taken up by one and the other is expected to take up a submissive, passive role. (This is often mistakenly called ‘strong leadership’)

Only the first option offers a ‘balanced’ and mutually agreeable co-operative relationship, which we would all recognise as friendship or collaboration. Either way, this option is the most stable, and the one most likely to provide the most benefit to the greatest number of people. It provides a platform of trust and co-operation that can be expanded and built upon.

The Next Steps are all yours

Make your choice or take your pick and start to build a better more co-operative relationship with your staff and with your manager. Let them know you want to do this and you are open to it. Show them how it can be done but most important of all, tell them how they can share in the benefits that will come from it.

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