Any of you who’ve spent time working in a large organisation will be familiar with the seeming need for (what feels like) endless meetings. In fact, working with and in groups is an inescapable fact of pretty much all organised work. Occasionally, this experience can be both stimulating and highly effective – where the group really does do substantially better than the sum of its parts. Sadly, more often than not, the group does not function well, or even effectively.
We are in fact, selected for cooperation. Humans evolved to work well with others whom we consider a part of our ‘tribe’; this makes a lot of sense, by working well with others to increase the wellbeing of the group, we enhance the chances of our own survival. We’re not so forgiving, however, of those with whom we don’t share a ‘tribal’ connection. When we don’t feel aligned with the people we work with, our desire to cooperate is reduced.
But even within aligned groups, cooperation is seldom homogeneous or nonhierarchical. Welcome to the wonderful world of primate politics: where our primitive urges screw up our ability to function effectively, productively, or even rationally. Let’s remember that what we consider to be the ‘modern world’ (and all of its institutions) is a very recent invention. For pretty much all of our recent evolution, humans have existed in an extremely primitive state. Up until as little as 5000 years ago, tribes maxed out at about 150 people (see Dunbar’s number), lives were pretty simple and almost entirely survival-based, technology was limited to fire and simple stone tools, and very little changed. In this context, the rules for cooperation were probably pretty simple: work with and for the best interests of the tribe, or die. But 150 people is still quite a lot of people to manage (even smaller groups of 10 or so still require a structure), and so our ancestors evolved a sort of intrinsic politics that can still be easily observed among our primate cousins (and, as I’ll argue, in most board rooms). Two themes are dominant in primate politics: mating and comfort. Those who are able to manipulate others to do their bidding, whilst still maintaining the overall functioning and survivability of the tribe, are more likely to be able to choose their mate, and to be able to increase their level of comfort (through access to better food and resources, and by reducing their workload by having others take over their share). From an evolutionary standpoint, this is a desirable position, because you are more likely to survive longer and to pass on your genes; but, by default, a given tribe can only have a small number of ‘leaders’, because leaders have no advantages without others to ‘lead’. This is, for all intents and purposes, the true definition of power in human systems. Those in power have the ability to manipulate those around them for their own benefit. But they are able to maintain that power so long as the system within which they wield it stays moderately stable.
This innate desire to increase our standing within the group has, without doubt, been the major factor in the way our societies have evolved. It has certainly been the foundation of pretty much all of our institutions, the basis for pretty much all conflict and, on the plus side, the reason why human beings are able to cooperate well beyond Dunbar’s number. We are selected to cooperate and compete at the same time, but also to attempt to do so in a way that doesn’t disrupt our systems catastrophically (which would undermine our own chance of power). Thus, when a group of people are put together three things will usually happen: first, we will work hard to comprehend our standing within the group; second, so long as we have a rudimentary understanding of the group’s goals and our place within it, we will cooperate with our fellows; and third, we will probably attempt to manipulate others within the group to increase our power base within it (especially if we see instability within the group). It’s unlikely, in a modern group, that this competition is for the original reason of increasing our mating potential, but that doesn’t stop us from repeating our deeply programmed urges. Status equals power which, traditionally, equalled mating privileges and better food. Hence, primate politics have a nasty habit of screwing up most of our attempts at effective cooperation – because even if you are aware of what’s going on and attempt to do something about it, you can pretty much guarantee that there will be at least one other person in the group who’s working hard on realising his or her monkey dreams.
So, if we were to distill all of this conjecture to its effect on group or team productivity it’d probably come down to the following: groups perform well when conditions exist that limit competition and enhance cooperation. In other words, group members should have high trust and confidence in one another; each member of the team needs adequate skills to participate effectively; there should be ample opportunity for clear communication between group members; and the group should have adequate latitude to act, be able to set clear goals, and have access to adequate resources to achieve (or at least work toward) those goals. In fact, when done right, teams can easily outperform the potential of the individuals within them, no matter how talented the members. Because humans are selected to work well cooperatively (because when done properly, this did have a direct impact on our chances of survival), we are intrinsically motivated to cooperate with others. And when everyone is motivated to do the same thing, a group can experience a phenomenon called flow. Although flow was originally proposed as an individual experience, cooperative and coactive flow have been regularly documented in groups who are able to work together in an ideal (or close to ideal) fashion, something that is most easily observed in sporting teams (rowing is a great example of coactive flow – where all members of a crew are working at the same time in a way to trumps individual need; whilst rugby can be a good example of cooperative flow, where the team cooperates toward a set of shared goals), but also happens, under the right conditions, in small groups of professionals. For example, if you were to observe a surgical team (including the surgeons, the anaesthetist, and the nurses), you’d see a great example of cooperative flow. Each member knows his or her part within the team, is highly trained, and has latitude to act within the scope of his or her role. Moreover, the group has clear goals and the ability to and procedures for communicating those goals (even and especially when emergencies occur or the goals change) to one another. Surgical teams who bicker or engage in primate politics are rare or even nonexistent (at least in the context of the actual surgical procedure) because to do so would be inimical to the group’s purpose. Nevertheless, when surgical teams do break down, it’s most likely due to an external (often managerial) interruption, including a change in structure, unnecessary limitations in latitude, or a reduction in resources.
It follows then, that groups perform poorly when its members don’t know one another well, lack trust, don’t have clear goals or objectives, are lacking in skill or ability, and when the group has low latitude for action, and insufficient resources to act effectively. In these situations, we feel intensely uncomfortable, mostly because we are in a situation that, in a primitive context (say, on a hunting expedition), would substantially reduce our survivability (bickering whilst hunting mammoth seldom ends well). Moreover, because the group is inherently unstable (which everyone is acutely aware of), there is an opportunity for members to compete for power. In fact, it’s quite possible that, traditionally, this competition helped to stabilise chaotic groups, forcing a level of cooperation that increases overall survivability (although, whenever this happens, efficiency and productivity will probably be reduced, at least temporarily).
Knowing this, surely it should be relatively easy to set up effective teams, working within an organisation for everyone’s benefit (and thus, procuring a highly effective organisation)? Well, it would be, if we were actually cognisant of this stuff. The problem is that most people, including those in positions of management and leadership, aren’t. It comes back to one of our biggest cognitive limitations: the belief that our ‘feelings’ and intuitions are trustworthy, and require both our attention and our actions (see here). We feel (and thus believe) that we should act a certain way and, in many situations, this belief trumps contravening knowledge. Managers might ‘know’ that teams work better under certain situations, but they don’t ‘believe’ it, based on their own intuition. Thus, few organisations make it a singular priority to allow groups the tools required for effective and productive cooperation. Instead, they often set conditions that are perfect for mistrust, competition, backstabbing, Machiavellian politics, and bullshit. And because we’re often uncomfortable in the organisations in which we work, we attempt to assert ourselves by gaining attention, disrupting stability, and increasing confusion. It makes us feel special and increases our chances for leadership – in a primitive “I have more” way, not a cooperative, “let’s work together” way.
So next time your organisation, committee, team, or government goes on a ‘productivity drive’, but also tells you to tighten your belts, and then adds yet another layer of bureaucracy to your job, role or life, you can smile to yourself in the knowledge that your leaders have, yet again, fucked it up.
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