Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 276
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Cooperation or Competition?

New research reveals a natural process that we can encourage that will help people work together.

Which is more common with your employees? Do they tell you confidentially that certain people make errors on the job or do they step in and correct those errors before anyone can notice that they have occurred? Do they pass on tricks they learn to avoid mistakes or do they withhold that information so that only their work is error free? Do they step in and help co-workers who are struggling with a task or do they busy themselves with other duties and allow these co-workers to get by as best they can?

As you think about your employees and how they work together, fundamentally, the question you are asking is this: Do my employees cooperate or compete with each other on the job? Cooperation is what we want. Unfortunately, it�s not always what we get.

For many years, researchers have called for their colleagues to examine work settings to discover how cooperation naturally occurs. They reasoned that since cooperation often does occur without anyone intending it or managing for this goal, then there must be conditions that are causing it. If we could learn what these are, then we could facilitate these conditions and improve cooperation.

Now, someone has done it.

Laurie Milton, from the University of Calgary, investigated several psychological factors and discovered one that influenced cooperation. She named it reciprocated identity confirmation. It�s a simple process, but it will take some explaining.

People have identities. At the simplest level, they have names that identify them, but beyond that, they also have identifying qualities. A young man may see himself as physically imposing because of his size or strength. A young woman may see herself as pretty and attractive to men.

Just as people have identities, they also manage them. The young man may swagger a bit as he walks. The young woman may wear makeup and carefully arrange her hair before going out. Both may wear clothing that draws attention to these identifying qualities. They do these things for a reason.

People want to be recognized. They want to have their identities confirmed by others. The young man wants others to recognize that he�s big and strong and tough. The young woman wants others to notice that she is pretty, and she wants young men to signal their attraction to her with special attention.

Having your identity recognized and confirmed feels good. Failing to have your identity confirmed feels bad. People are attracted to those who confirm their identities and usually respond in two ways. First, they reciprocate, that is, they return the favor and confirm the identities of these others. Second, they cooperate with them in joint tasks like sports, fixing cars, or shopping for swim suits. Finally, if others actively thwart your efforts to confirm your identity, then people experience it as competition, and a vicious cycle begins.

Professor Milton recognized that people also have job-related identities. They�re smart, funny, creative, good with people, get things done, motivate others, make decisions easily, and/or handle pressure well. Then she conducted a test to see if the same rules about identity confirmation applied in work settings. They do. She found that the higher the level of reciprocated identity confirmation, the greater the cooperation. She also found that the greater the level of frustrated identity confirmation, the greater the competition between people. So, do we want cooperation or competition?

If it�s cooperation you want, then Milton�s research suggests that encouraging identity confirmation among members of work groups will have the two effects described above, it will cause them to reciprocate, and it will cause them to cooperate.

Ms. Milton feels it is important to give employees the opportunity to reveal their identities. This is a necessary first step in encouraging others to signal their recognition and confirmation of each other�s identities. She feels that rules we enforce that prevent displays of individual identity are wrong, and she feels we should create opportunities that allow people to display their identities and have co-workers notice when they do. For example, meetings of work groups in which people are encouraged to speak about the things they do well are excellent opportunities for identity confirmation to occur. This is something we can do to actively encourage cooperation.

Reference: Milton, Laurie, and James Westphal (2005) Identity Confirmation Networks and Cooperation in Work Groups. Academy of Management Journal, 48 (2), 191-212.

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