The Challenge of Cooperation

Successful cooperation requires considering the shadow of the past, shared identity, and the shadow of the future. Effective and clear communication, setting cooperative expectations, promoting accountability, and fostering trust are all essential factors. By understanding the dynamics of cooperation and employing these strategies, we can overcome the challenge of cooperation and create environments where individuals willingly work together for the collective good.

Josh Ether

7/5/20194 min read

Cooperation is a complex challenge that involves persuading individuals to act in ways that benefit the collective, even if it may not align with their personal interests. To illustrate this, let's examine a story about a skilled homicide detective named Marshall Frank. In one particular case, Detective Frank was certain of Paul Rowles' guilt but lacked the evidence to prove it. His ultimate goal was to obtain a confession from Rowles. During the interrogation, Rowles was well aware of the detective's objective, turning the situation into a game. Surprisingly, within just 30 minutes, Detective Frank succeeded in extracting the confession he desired. This story highlights the power of cooperation and begs the question: How can we motivate individuals to assist us, even when it may not be in their immediate self-interest?

This challenge of cooperation extends to various aspects of our lives. For example, would you be willing to allow a complete stranger to stay in your house? Generally, the answer would be no. However, this is precisely what Airbnb is built upon—a platform that enables people to do just that. We face similar situations in social dilemmas, which are essentially multi-party versions of the prisoner's dilemma. In a social dilemma, we aim to encourage collective actions that benefit everyone involved. Take, for instance, the issue of car emissions. While we want everyone to undergo smog tests, individuals would prefer to avoid the hassle for their own vehicles. Similarly, when it comes to overfishing, we hope others will cut back, but we ourselves are tempted to maximize our own fishing activities. These scenarios demonstrate how individuals are incentivized to act in their own best interest, even if it contradicts what is beneficial for the group as a whole.

So, how can we address these social dilemmas and foster cooperation? Let's start by examining the classic prisoner's dilemma, which serves as a fundamental case study in this realm. In the original dilemma, there are only two people involved, resembling Detective Frank's scenario where obtaining a confession benefits both parties by expediting the legal process. However, individually, confessing might not be in their best interest. Now, let's imagine a situation where two individuals are caught and face the choice of cooperating or defecting. Cooperation entails not confessing, resulting in a lighter sentence of six months for both. Conversely, if both confess, they each receive a harsher sentence of five years. Here, it becomes clear that mutual cooperation leads to the best outcome for both individuals.

However, an interesting twist occurs if one person defects while the other cooperates. In such a case, the detective may offer a deal to the defector, granting them freedom while imposing a 10-year sentence on the cooperator. This creates a dilemma for the individual facing this choice. They must decide between cooperating and prioritizing the collective interest, or defecting to protect their own self-interest and achieving a better outcome regardless of their counterpart's decision. In this particular situation, defecting always seems advantageous, irrespective of the other person's actions. Consequently, individuals have a natural inclination to act in their own self-interest, even in cooperative settings.

To overcome this challenge, we need to explore strategies that encourage cooperation, despite its potential cost to individuals. Consider scenarios where we want a coworker to take on additional tasks, our children to contribute more to household chores, or our spouse to assist us instead of relaxing on the couch. In both work and personal life, we constantly face the task of aligning conflicting interests and motivating people to cooperate. Furthermore, numerous social dilemmas exist beyond the examples mentioned, such as conserving water, supporting public radio, or fostering collaboration in negotiation settings to create mutual value.

As managers, we continuously strive to solve these social dilemmas within our teams. Several key factors facilitate cooperation in such contexts. First, building relationships is crucial. The stronger people's identification with a group or team, the more likely they are to cooperate. This concept, known as the "Shadow of the Past," emphasizes the importance of shared history and collective goals. By fostering a sense of togetherness, cooperation becomes more effective. Similarly, a shared identity contributes to cooperation. When individuals perceive themselves as part of a group, be it through team designations or wearing company-branded clothing, their cooperation tends to strengthen. Furthermore, the "Shadow of the Future" theory indicates that the likelihood of future interactions influences cooperation. When individuals anticipate long-term relationships, they are more inclined to help others, as they anticipate receiving assistance in return.

In addition to relationship-building, effective and clear communication plays a vital role in promoting cooperation. The ability to express our needs and explain why they are important fosters understanding and collaboration. Face-to-face communication is particularly valuable, as it enables the most comprehensive exchange of information. Furthermore, setting clear expectations is essential. By communicating a collective focus rather than an individualistic perspective, we shape the cooperative mindset. Research shows that people are more inclined to cooperate when they perceive a task as a community game rather than a competitive Wall Street Game. Therefore, the way we describe situations and communicate expectations significantly influences cooperation levels.

Another critical aspect is accountability. When individuals' behaviors are observable, they are more likely to cooperate. For instance, water conservation efforts are more effective when neighbors can observe their peers reducing water usage. Conversely, anonymity hampers cooperation. Implementing rating systems, as seen in Airbnb, enhances cooperation by providing accountability. Trust also plays a fundamental role. Establishing trusting relationships nurtures cooperation, as individuals are more willing to cooperate with those they trust. Trust-building measures can include transparency, reliability, and fulfilling commitments.