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How to encourage cooperation: companies benefit when workers cooperate to achieve objectives. The key is to hire team players and to make collaboration part of the culture.

EVERY ORGANIZATION SHOULD strive to create cooperative relationships, because cooperation can be a boon to the bottom line. In a study my team conducted of top-performing companies, all of them nurtured cooperation over competitiveness. Those companies that fail to develop a cooperative mind-set do so because they face barriers created by competitive behaviors. In many cases, these barriers are erected in an unconscious manner. Managers must first recognize when they are fostering a competitive environment. Then, they must nurture cooperation.

Competitive Mind-set

Peter is a senior executive in a large company that manufactures and services high-technology equipment. In our interviews with the engineers, many commented that senior executives, including Peter, were aggressive toward each other. The stories we heard were tales of senior team showdowns in the corridors. There was even a widely held perception that a number of senior team members refused to speak to each other because of turf battles.

The company had 65 engineers located across three states in the United States. Executives assumed that engineers could be motivated by the opportunity for reward. The primary object of the company's complex reward system was to build performance by creating competition among these engineers. This was achieved by ranking the performance of individuals and then allocating the maximum bonuses to the highest-performing engineers.

Engineers who serviced the machines the fastest received the highest performance rating and the largest bonuses. Service calls completed per day were tabulated, and the engineers' rankings were prominently posted each week on the wall of the employees' lounge. When opportunities for promotion came along, the engineers at the top of the rankings were given management positions.

The engineers were aware of which aspects of their performance were rewarded. They learned that the best way to ensure a high ranking and a big bonus was to work on their own.

As a consequence, we learned that when new staff came on board, colleagues were pleasant but unhelpful. When these new staffers had a problem and talked to others about it, they were directed to the service manual. This culture made it difficult for new hires, and a significant number of them left within the first three months of their contract.

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Those who stayed learned quickly that performance was measured by speed of service. Thus, when a machine could not be rapidly repaired, the best strategy was 'to leave it. It does not take a genius to see that this atmosphere was not serving the company well.

Cooperative Mind-set

To foster cooperation over the competitiveness displayed in Peter's company, senior managers must pay careful attention to a whole system of practices, processes, behaviors, and norms. These include hiring, induction, mentoring, rewards, peer-to-peer working, and social responsibility.

Hiring. Hiring plays a crucial role in building a culture of cooperation; the company should have a program designed to attract and retain a high proportion of people who are naturally cooperative. The program should weed out naturally uncooperative and highly competitive people.

For example, at Goldman Sachs, the hiring and promotion systems have evolved to carefully screen out people who are incapable of working cooperatively and to identify those most likely to work in a cooperative manner.

The company does this by having applicants speak to a large pool of screeners. For example, at least ten members of the firm will talk to the first round of, say, 5,000 candidates, and then 2,500 that make the cut will speak to as many as 30 members of the firm. Collectively, members of Goldman Sachs spend over 100,000 hours in conversations with prospective employees before they decide which ones will get hired.

Induction. How an employee is inducted into the company is also crucial to establishing the culture of cooperation. Management should understand that within the first six weeks of joining a company, the socialization process is well under way, and norms of behavior are beginning to emerge. The company must focus during that period on building strong, positive relationships.

For example, at Nokia, a well-established induction practice takes place for new hires. It is simple but effective. Within the first few weeks, the manager formally introduces the new employee to six people within the team and to six people outside the team. This kick-starts the development of the relationships that support this cooperative working and begins the development of trust. It also legitimizes and encourages cooperation with those beyond the immediate team.

Mentoring. Perhaps the most obvious cooperative role a manager can model is actively mentoring others. Our research shows that all mentoring programs have a positive impact on the emergence of a cooperative mind-set.

We discovered that teams with a strong, shared mind-set of cooperation are more likely to contain a high proportion of team members who have had positive experiences of being mentored. In some cases, they have participated in mentoring schemes.

Rewards. Individualized, highly competitive rewards act as a strong disincentive to the cooperative mind-set. When people are pitted against each other, their motivation is to compete rather than to cooperate.

For cooperation to emerge, the barriers erected by such rewards and bonuses must be removed. It is critical to note that people do not cooperate to obtain rewards for doing so. To measure cooperative performance, managers must foster a culture of constant feedback. In essence, performance management should be seen more as a feedback mechanism and less as a measurement device.

Peer-to-peer working. A mind-set of cooperation emerges when there is a sense of mutuality, when people realize that only through working with others will they flourish. Organizational structures that encourage peer-to-peer working serve to support the emergence of this sense of mutuality by developing the habits of working with others.

Peer-to-peer working encourages a sense of cooperation and mutuality. In situations where people work on their own and are dependent only on their own competencies and skills, it is more difficult for them to develop a sense of trust in others and for a mind-set of cooperation to emerge.

Executives can foster mutuality by deepening people's understanding and awareness of the world as others view it. Processes such as brainstorming provide a context where people and ideas can come together to forge a common perspective, avoiding the risks of premature criticism and closure. Other organizational practices, such as regular job rotations and assignments to different parts of the organization, can similarly be used to emphasize respect for each other's different perspectives.

Social responsibility. A sense of mutuality and of being part of something big and important emerges through the practice of social responsibility. The executives in companies where cooperation flourishes often practice cooperation both on and off the job. They do this by encouraging and supporting employees' involvement in activities that benefit the wider community. This sort of social responsibility teaches that to support and help others is important.

The practice of social responsibility can be as simple as the practice of Citigroup's executives when they travel to business meetings. Instead of devoting all their time together to business presentations and discussions, they allocate some of their time to the community in which they are meeting. For example, if the executive team is meeting in central London, members spend half a day in the local community working with disadvantaged youngsters.

The willingness to cooperate depends to a significant extent on the personal relationships people develop with each other. These relationships shape workers' accessibility and the mutual motivation of people to engage with each other in knowledge and learning.

Where relationships are high in trust, people are more willing to engage in social exchange in general and to be cooperative. In the context of knowledge exchange, trust leads to the openness, dialogue, and shared experimentation that is so important for innovation.

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School in London, United Kingdom. This article is excerpted from her book Hot Spots: Why Some Teams, Workplaces, and Organizations Buzz with Energy--and Others Don't published by Berrett-Kohler Publishers in San Francisco. To purchase the book call 800/929-2929 or visit www.bkconnection.com.
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Author:Gratton, Lynda
Publication:Security Management
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2007
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