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December 8, 2011
Harvard professor Yochai Benkler recently described research about selfishness and cooperation. For many years, it was assumed that maximizing one’s own interests is hard-wired.  However, recent studies suggest that people have a neural (and maybe genetic) predisposition to cooperate with others. Professor Benkler notes this might explain why using carrots and sticks to motivate people to collaborate isn’t particularly effective. He highlights some ways to increase collaboration, which is essential to the success of an organization:

Communication – “Over hundreds of experiments spanning decades,” he says, “no single factor has had as large an effect on levels of cooperation as the ability to communicate… When people are able to communicate, they are more empathetic and more trusting, and they can reach solutions more readily than when they don’t talk to one another.”

Empathy and solidarity – The more people see, interact with, and know the people they work with, the more likely they are to understand their interests and sacrifice their own for the collective good.

Fairness and morality – People care about being treated fairly and about doing the right thing, says Benkler. “Clearly defined values are crucial to cooperation; discussing, explaining, and reinforcing the right or ethical thing to do will increase the degree to which people behave that way.” People also understand that “fair” doesn’t always mean “equal” and accept flexibility as long as the norms are transparent.

Authentic framing – Structuring a practice to require collaboration is very helpful, but it can’t be artificial. “People react differently depending on how situations are framed,” says Benkler, “but they aren’t stupid. It’s important that the frame fits reality.”

Rewards that foster intrinsic motivation – “Whenever you design a policy that relies on monetary rewards, you have to assume that it will have side effects on the psychological, social, and moral dimensions of human behavior,” says Benkler. A better way to encourage cooperation is by making it socially or intellectually rewarding, or just plain fun.

Reputation and reciprocity – Long-term reciprocity, particularly the “pay-it-forward” kind, is a powerful way to encourage cooperation, provided that we can trust the reputation of the people involved.

Saline Area Schools is a large organization and our success is tied directly to our ability to cooperate.  It’s important for us to consider the ways we can strengthen our ability to cooperate.

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