Office Behavior: Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

If doing good makes us feel good, why do people at work reliably resist the urge?

The fact that people talk to journalists still fills me with childlike pleasure and surprise. There are so many risks — being misquoted, talking to someone whose skepticism is jaundiced rather than healthy, inadvertently letting some secret slip out. Sometimes people talk to pitch a product or a viewpoint, sure, but most people talk — amazingly enough — because they’re nice. They’re proud of their work and genuinely get a kick out of helping.

It’s called “reciprocal altruism” — one hand washes the other. Reciprocal altruism is so important and so uniquely human that it’s “the core behavioral principle of human social life,” says a team from the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University. A study the team did, described in the New York Times last week, shows that there’s even a biochemical basis for it. (The full report, “A Neural Basis for Social Cooperation,” appears in the journal Neuron.) In the project, the shrinks wired a group of women to functional magnetic resonance images that scanned their brains while they played a game called Prisoner’s Dilemma.

The game takes its name from the situation in which two prisoners get grilled in separate rooms. If both clam up, the cops have no evidence and let them go. If one squeals, the cops let him go and nail the other. If both rat each other out, both fry. In the Emory experiments, the game was iterated — that is, the same two people played for several rounds. Each time they cooperated (i.e., worked together), they got $2 each; if both defected and broke ranks, they got $1; if one defected while the other still tried to cooperate, the defector got $3, and the cooperator got zilch. The pairs did best by working together, but an individual got an advantage if she broke ranks. The subjects had a chance to meet briefly beforehand and also played against a computer.

It turns out your mom was right: Virtue is its own reward. When the subjects played cooperatively, their brains lit up in areas associated with processing rewards. And for the most part, they did cooperate. The exceptions happened mainly in the final rounds of a game, when they were likely to try for a quick score, or in games where one player consistently defected, in which case her partner started playing selfishly too — the strategy game theorists call “tit for tat.” When subjects knew they were playing a computer, they cooperated less — and their brain scans showed less reward — than when the other player was a human being. When you cooperate, dopamine floods your brain, and your cortex lights up. You feel good.

The study raises big management questions. Managers complain that people frequently hoard knowledge, fail to share credit with others, and generally behave uncooperatively. Office politics — a proxy for selfishness — is the second most common reason people give for quitting a job. (Number one is tension with one’s immediate boss.) It’s human nature, we sigh.

But it’s not. All around us is evidence that people are naturally predisposed to get along. We live in cities, help little old ladies across the street, and sorta obey the speed limit. The profound urge to cooperate is why “good cop/bad cop” works, why you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and why it was the sun, not the wind, that got the man to remove his coat. I don’t buy Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s argument that selfishness is all society’s fault; society is manmade, and hermits don’t share. Yet organizations are filled with behavior that is contrary to our very brain chemistry.

The Emory study suggests some ways to attack the problem.

1. Be human.

How interesting, and how obvious, that people are more likely to double-cross a computer than a person. Do employees think of The Company as a machine? Last week I was talking about this with Bob Webb, an executive VP of Bovis Lend Lease, the big construction and real estate management company. Webb leads Bovis’s global knowledge-sharing and e-commerce work. “The very people who hoard their ideas at work,” he observed, “will open right up at lunch with recommendations about stocks or home repairs.” So do everything you can to humanize the workplace. Be careful about replacing operators with phone menus in, say, the employee benefits department. Employees want to talk to a person as much as customers do. Employees want to talk to you: The night before the battle of Agincourt, Shakespeare tells us, Henry V went forth and visited all his hosts, bade them good morrow with a modest smile, and called them brothers, friends, and countrymen. After that “little touch of Harry in the night,” they stood together and kicked French butt.

2. Stop teaching fear and greed.

As Oscar Hammerstein wrote, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear … you’ve got to be carefully taught.” Do you reward teams or individuals? Do you promote credit-givers or credit-takers? Employees will adapt, just as players at Emory returned tit for tat against a player (or a computer) that had been instructed not to cooperate. Brain chemistry may tell people that cooperation is rewarding, but if you praise and pay pigs, people will learn to wallow.

3. Cultivate a long-term view.

At Emory, even cooperative players sneaked a cookie when they thought the game was almost over. But the game of business never ends. You’ll increase reciprocal altruism if you emphasize, in thought, word, and deed, that the company, its employees, and its customers are going to be here next month, next year, five years out. Fire reluctantly. Create regular, repeated occasions for people from different parts of the company to work together. Reward those who deepen relationships with old customers as much as you do those who find new ones. Talk about your common future. It’s only human.

Posted by on July 30, 2002