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

In this age of virtual organizations, managers are desperate to optimize the human resources at their disposal. Here a two resources that provide insight and practical advice about promoting collaboration, to this end.

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.
  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.


About the author

A technology strategist for an enterprise software company in the collaboration and social business space. I am particularly interested in studying how people, organizations, and technology interact, with a focus on why particular technologies are successfully adopted while others fail in their mission. In my 'spare' time, I am pursuing an advanced degree in STS (Science, Technology, and Society), focusing on how social collaboration tools impact our perceptions of being overloaded by information. I am an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology.