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Why Is Cooperation So Difficult in the Workplace?

Cooperation may be central to our social evolution, but U.S. cultural emphasis on the individual and her successes creates a contradiction.

Scientific American

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What can managers do to encourage cooperation among virtual teams? Photo by Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images

Cooperation forms the basis for community in all of its forms. It is particularly important to the modern American workplace, which increasingly has come to rely on geographically distributed employees for a number of reasons, including talent retention and market savings. These dispersed teams are formulated around cross-functional members working on interdependent tasks while sharing responsibility for a team outcome. They collaborate primarily through virtual means—email, online chat, video and phone. While many teams are successful, almost all will tell you that the virtual experience is challenging. If cooperation is fundamental to human success, why is it so hard for virtual teams?

Humans are the only species to cooperate to the degree that we do, and this cooperation may have allowed for many other derived social traits related to group living to emerge, including generosity, sharing, teaching and learning, and shared intentionality. Our history is one of people working together to find new places, build new homes, and fight others. But work—as we know it today in urban environments—is oriented around individuals and their specific jobs. If Bob is responsible for the XY reports and is behind on delivering, it’s not standard practice for John or Kate to help him get that report done. Rather, Bob's poor delivery performance becomes a documented example as to why Bob should not get a promotion or raise.

Cooperation may be central to our social evolution but American cultural emphasis on the individual and her successes creates a contradiction. Workplaces like to tout themselves as having a collaborative culture, but that collaboration is limited to the overall business goals of the organization—even within departments that are organized around a shared principle, colleagues are assigned clients or projects to own which emphasizes their individual successes and skills. These successes and skills are magnified by a façade of process. While having practice guidelines is important and necessary to business operations, processes may be weaponized as they’re held as a judge and jury for employee behavior—a way to strategically isolate and alienate employees. On a micro level cooperation seems to occur less than the HR section of many company websites would suggest. We cooperate when we understand it will benefit us, and this is particularly true when it comes to questions of workplace success.

For virtual teams cooperation is especially challenging because they are already working against barriers to coordination, such as distance and time and cross cultural and language differences. Trust and team cohesion issues also arise because team members have limited ability to identify common values through regular interactions. Virtual team leaders have the added challenge of identifying and addressing issues of isolation as they work to build cohesion, establish norms for communication and knowledge sharing, and motivate team members to commit to the team/organization’s mission. They are often short-lived assemblages in comparison to their on-site counterparts. All of these items stack the deck against the virtual group’s efficiency.

The challenge begins with understanding the task itself. The task is the source of goals, roles, and frames the exchanges that the team will have. It sets the minimum requirement for the resource pool. If the assembled team does not have the combined skills, knowledge, abilities or resources to address the task, the team will not be successful. But identifying the right people for the work at hand requires more than just understanding a person’s resume; it requires balancing professional chemistry and putting together the right mix of personalities.

Whether the team is short-lived or a long-term assignment, it ultimately becomes a self-regulating entity. When people are properly matched, these relationships are supportive; when they are not, these relationships can be obstructive. Team membership is governed by external and internal social codes. The former is linked to reputation—if you gain notoriety for not meeting deadlines or producing subpar work, fewer people will want to work with you—and the latter is linked to a sense of obligation to your colleagues—feelings of guilt at possibly disappointing colleagues and a desire to maintain positive working relationships. This is why the relationships that people have with each other is important—especially over distance. 

The other challenge is process itself. Team effectiveness is a dynamic process reflective of the micro and macro politics of the organization to which they belong. It is driven by system context and task environment: the shifting complexity of organization growth and business demands create comparable tasks on the team level. Whether the team is successful in solutioning these tasks depends on whether their processes are aligned with the tasks—that is, to assume that a single, unchanging process is all a team will ever need is immediately limiting.

Process should provide guidelines that allow team leaders the flexibility to seek solutions, however this is not always the case. In process-oriented practices, the work/flow order is never varied and as employees’ successes are measured by their ability to adhere to process; their unwillingness to vary from process may be viewed as uncooperative. This then creates challenges to completing tasks and achieving goals because the ripple effect extends to collegial relationships and collegial sharing. A task-oriented practice will prioritize the solution over the strict adherence to process so that provided employees are committed to a baseline for process—whether that is an intake protocol or staffing protocol, for example—there is greater opportunity to solution problems from a wider base. (To be perfectly clear, variance from protocol should never, ever take precedence over safety concerns. We are talking strictly in terms of processes that prevent geographically diverse teams from potentially working together.)

So what can managers do to encourage cooperation?

  • Advocate for the best fit of team members. Particularly when a remote team is being assembled, don’t simply accept the people who are tasked to work with you, take time to meet and speak with the people being gathered for the work. Take the time to describe the work, and if possible speak with prior team members. Importantly, if they do not seem to be the right fit, discuss replacements with the assignment team.
  • Report out on team progress. This breaks the isolation of the team and celebrates the things that do work.
  • Whenever possible, set team processes that align with the tasks, ensuring that people have the tools necessary to complete their work.

But truthfully, managers can only do so much. If the organization isn’t oriented to allow managers to succeed as leaders by empowering them to make decisions about their team and the processes they utilize. Cooperation is a localized affair. It is easiest to manage on-site, but when it comes to virtual groups, authority in these areas can offset some of the challenges that these groups face.

Krystal D’Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook.


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  • Kozlowski, Steve W. J., and Daniel R. Ilgen. "Enhancing the Effectiveness of Work Groups and Teams." Psychological Science in the Public Interest 7, no. 3 (2006): 77-124.
  • Malhotra, Arvind, Ann Majchrzak, and Benson Rosen. "Leading Virtual Teams." Academy of Management Perspectives 21, no. 1 (2007): 60-70.
  • White, Julie A., and Gary Wehlage. "Community Collaboration: If It Is Such a Good Idea, Why Is It So Hard to Do?" Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 17, no. 1 (1995): 23-38.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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    This post originally appeared on Scientific American and was published April 29, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.

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