Hard-wired for Collaboration

According to this article on The World Cafe we humans may be more inclined to collaborate rather than compete:

Swedish scientists have done extensive research on this and they found we first lived in small groups of 20 to 100 people who in any given week averaged 2.5 days for gathering and hunting and 4.5 days on talking. The conclusion they came to from this data was that the brain, the neurological system, and our hormonal systems have had 90,000 years of programming us for talk and collaboration, and only 10,000 years for competition and fighting.

Dave Pollard sees collaboration and facilitation as a skill that he has developed as he has matured:

The role of facilitator, as I try to practice it now, entails the following:

  • Pay attention, listen, and understand why things are the way they are now.
  • Probe to discover what the obstacles are to co-workers’ work effectiveness, and work to remove those obstacles.
  • Imagine ideas, suggest frameworks, co-develop visions, and create tools, that might make things easier. Offer them, demonstrate them, as experiments, and then let the group do what they will with them — evolve them, adapt them, or fail them. Let what works work, and let what doesn’t work go.
  • Appreciate — thank your co-workers and show you appreciate their work and their ideas.
  • Collaborate when you are invited to do so. Invite others to collaborate to solve important workplace problems.

A few years ago I talked about collaborating to compete and it still seems more natural to me than trying to compete head to head with a winner-take-all attitude. The challenge is that our models from the past few thousand years don’t help us much. School is still competitive and so are sports and much of our business. Collaborative inter-networked technologies seem to be helpful in fostering collaboration but we really need to work on the social, cultural and economic models to reassert the importance of collaboration.

Places like the Commons could provide alternative economic models, but even that is proving to be a hard sell.

7 Responses to “Hard-wired for Collaboration”

  1. Tom Haskins

    Harold: I’ve been reading “The Fourth Turning” book lately (Dave Pollard recommends). The authors suggest there are lots of dimensions of human traits that skip generations. I’d include cooperation and competition in those. Cooperation is currently a “hard sell” to Gen X, but will find buyers easily in Gen Y.

    The G.I generation (now 62-87 yo) fought World War II following the Great Depression. For them life is a desperate competition and otherwise meaningless. The Boomers (now 47-62 yo) marched in anti-war protests, started the Green Movement, Women’s lib, Civil rights, and other upgrades in collective interests. For us, life is collaboration, opportunities to give, and filled with personal significance, destiny and purpose. Gen X (now 22-47 yo) are fighting insurgents, fueling corporate growth, and focused on wealth accumulation at the expense of international diplomacy, the environment and future generations. For them, life is a competition and those New Age, Jungian, mythological and inner work processes are total bunk, Gen Y will join the parade as if life is collaboration and deeply meaningful.

  2. Harold

    Thanks, Tom. Makes you wonder about individual choice, when your whole generation seems to act in the same way. Interesting concept.

  3. Amanda Cockshutt

    I haven’t done the reading, but I don’t buy Tom’s arguments.

    Maybe my Gen will be way too obvious, but to my mind it is the boomers that initiated the corporate growth and insane focus on wealth accumulation, they have/are/will retire(d)(ing) early and will happily have the evil Gen X and Y and Z and beyond pay the way for them, while at the same time we try to put the environmental toothpaste back in the tube since the boomers squeezed it all out while we were young.

    But that’s just my perspective…

  4. Ron Lubensky

    I also feel the generational thing is an over-generalisation. But I do believe that we see local cycles of hardness and softness in our community attitudes.

    I’ve participated in a World Cafe event, and I’d recommend it to anybody. To witness free dialogue in a room of hundreds coalesce into a short list of prevalent themes, without group-think or persuasion, is quite miraculous.

    I think we’re just as capable at (ie hard-wired for) individualistic competition as community collaboration, but it’s a matter of what we get used to.

  5. Tom Haskins

    The Fourth Turning does not explain deviation within each generation or individual choice, as you raise Harold. It does not consider multi-generational legacies as you suggest Amanda . The patterns they define may explain wars and governmental crises better than cultural shifts. I see the bounty of “cultural creatives” and the “Free Agent Nation” as counter cyclical. So the generation thing is an over-generalization, as you said Ron. Thanks everyone for helping me get a perspective on the book’s perspective.

  6. Anne McCrady

    A couple of thoughts:

    First, it is interesting to note that the original meaning of “competitor” was someone who ran alongside an Olympic athlete to help him to improve by giving him someone to “compete” with. In that context, competition was actually a way of collaborating! These days, it seems we have corrupted the word to suggest a winner and a loser, a method for addressing our greed.

    Second, social anthropologists have long held that language was a monumental development for earliest man. The cultural advantage of language was, in fact, to allow collaboration — groups could share knowledge so that each individual did not have to learn everything “the hard way.” Then and now, language and collaboration permit individuals to share information, resources, struggles and successes for the greater good.

    Whatever generation we belong to, competition (in its untainted version) and collaboration both offer a hopeful way forward..especially if we can use them as tools to connect Boomers and Gen Xers, men and women, Eastern societies and Western nations, poor and affluent, technical and artistic, Muslim and Christian, rural and urban…the possiblities are endless!


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)