Why Do We Cooperate? Some Evolutionary Thoughts About What Motivates Us

You can hardly pick up a magazine (or book) these days without seeing an article (or chapter) about how collaboration is a powerful business enabler. In this age of downsizing, outsourcing, and virtual organizations, managers are desperate to optimize the human resources at their disposal, regardless of where they reside. Figuring out what motivates people to cooperate (i.e. collaborate) with peers is a difficult challenge. And so, enterprising writers are eager for angles that can provide insight, myself included. So, I was excited to encounter two unrelated sources this week, that together, provide insight and practical advice about promoting collaboration.

The first was an article published by Yochai Benkler, a professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard University and a co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Sociey at the same institution. The article, which appears in this month's Harvard Business Review, is entitled, "The Unselfish Gene." The title is an intended dig at Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene," which a popular book about evolution. In the article, Benkler refutes Dawkins' contention that people are, at their core, selfish, and are therefore primarily motivated by self-advancement (even to the detriment of others). Benkler points to a new understanding of biological evolution that recognizes 'genetic evidence of a human predisposition to cooperate.' Based on these findings, Benkler recommends that organizations embrace a combination of the following seven mechanisms to encourage human cooperation:

  1. Foster communication between team members. This is the biggest (and most experimentally-grounded) factor in getting people to cooperate.
  2. Frame the business context appropriately. For example, Benkler points to research that shows people are more apt to cooperate on a 'community project 'than a 'Wall Street project,' even though both are functionally identical. The underlying principle is that context plays a strong role in our motivation to cooperate.
  3. Create empathy and solidarity—caring about the people with whom we work has an enormous impact on our motivation to cooperate with them.
  4. Be fair and moral. Treat people according to what is considered just in the business context and focus on doing the 'right thing.' Clearly define both of these terms within the context of the organization ... and mean it.
  5. Reward - but not necessarily with money; in some cases, financial rewards may even hinder cooperation, according to Benkler. Rather, find elements of fulfillment that are valued by team members. The key is to focus on rewards rather than behavior monitoring (i.e. punishment).
  6. Use reputation—people value their public status, so make it visible. Benkler points to systems like eBay's reputation system that is effective in keeping people 'honest,' because their name is valued asset.
  7. Offer diverse mechanisms to motivate people to cooperate—different people are motivated by different things. Find which lever impacts an individual and use it, in a positive way.

This last point leads me to a meeting I had this week with Sara M. Roberts, president of RobertsGolden Consulting; an organizational consulting group, prior to her keynote address at the Enterprise 2.0 Conference in Boston. On the topic of diverse mechanism for motivating people, Sara identified the following four instruments:

  • Competition—'Game-ifying' business initiatives.
  • Personal achievement—publicizing personal attainment to peers
  • Exploration—giving people the opportunity to learn or research new things
  • Socialization—being part of a community

Roberts pointed out that each person is primarily motivated by one particular mechanism. For example, a competitive person would respond well to a project 'game' that would give them the opportunity to score points and outperform their peers. On the other hand, a social person would respond to joining a meaningful project community. Finding the right balance to motivate a diverse group is the trick. Of course, it's not quite that simple. Roberts point to 'organizational readiness' as another key success factor in effecting change and getting these methods to work. But that is a topic for another day ...

If you have a story about how your organization motivates people, I would like to hear about it.

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1 Comments

  • EphraimJF

    Thanks for this excellent summary of the 7 mechanisms for fostering cooperation. I guess we can close the book on whether or not people are fundamentally good.

    In my experience, TRUST is the single most important factor in successful collaboration. When a team develops a strong sense of trust, communication becomes more open and empathy, solidarity and fairness grow.

    Regarding gamification, company culture plays a huge role. In a recent interview, Dinesh Tantri of ThoughtWorks, explained how "listening to culture" helped him NOT implement gamification on their social intranet where it wasn't a good fit:

    http://bit.ly/ikWXY8