Designing a Better Business with Cooperative Systems

The case for creating more cooperative and altruistic business environments is an easy one to make.  In the modern organization where projects are constantly beginning and ending, and individuals’ workloads are difficult to define and constantly fluctuating, being able to develop an environment that promotes cooperative behavior can quickly return on the investment.

Until recently, we, with the help of evolutionary biologists have been under the impression that humans are inherently selfish.  Flashback to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan or Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and even though they differ slightly, they reach the same conclusion, that humans are inherently selfish. Certainly in 2008 with the collapse of the financial markets, prompted by the behavior of investment bankers, continuing today with the American political system led by politicians who leave no question that re-election is the only real concern, it’s a tough pill to swallow that humans could possibly contain even an iota of altriusm or conscientiousness for their common man.

However, if we step back we realize that corporate and political systems are based on the assumption that human beings are selfish and need to be controlled with punishments or similarly motivated with promise of financial gain. When we being to see this, it becomes easier to see that these systems create conditions that force or provoke humans to act in selfish ways. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

In the last decade, however, multi-discplinary studies spanning, evolutionary biology, genetics, psychology, economics and political science are beginning to prove, through an enormous body of evidence that the issue is obviously not black or white. Humans are not either altruistic or selfish, they are both, depending on a wide variety of conditions. And, furthermore, if systems are put in place that presume or promote unselfish behavior and create conditions that allow it to flourish, there’s no guessing what our societies could be capable of.

So, cutting to the chase, how do we design coorporative systems (in this case within businesses) that are easy to maintain but that create conditions that will allow businesses to increase profits and employee satisfaction (a logical byproduct or altruism) to soar?  Good question. Here’s an initial framework, borrowed from the work of Yochai Benkler, a Harvard Law Professor and author of The Unselfish Gene, a post which inspired this piece:

Communication: a cooperative environment hinges on open communication, as it predicates trust and empathy. Businesses should strive to develop as much transparency within their organization as possible. The days of closed door meetings and murky corporate strategies are over. As millennials take their places in the work force transparency will be a requirement.

Morality: Clearly defined corporate values set a precedence amongst employees for what constitutes acceptable behavior. Cooperative systems are based on the notion that people would rather follow social norms than obey rules. Simply put, people want to do what’s normal.  So, set the “norm” on an aspirational, but attainable plane.

Rewards: Material payoffs are the gold-standard for incentivizing higher performance, however research is beginning to show that this can significantly hinder altruistic or pro-social behavior. Focusing on appealing to people’s intrinsic motivations, by making the business social, autonomous, rewarding and fun will yield far greater results. Think about it: hand someone a gift card for a job well-done or present them with the opportunity to lead a team that investigates and evolves your process.

Reputation / Reciprocity: constructing systems that have participants dependent on one-another for success will have a much greater likelihood of yielding better results, as shown by project-to-project team-based models.

Research by Peter Senge on Learning Organizations has much to lend this as well, but that’s another post.  In summary, industrial area organizational models are ineffectual at fostering environments capable of competing with today’s challenges and needs for innovation. People who are focused on individual payouts aren’t intrinsically motivated to create, learn, experiment and cooperate with their peers in pursuit of a clearly defined goal for which they feel an emotional connection.



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