Culture & Société

Written on 24 May 2017
By Anne Witte
Professor, Department of Culture and Society, EDHEC Business School. Specialized in the interaction between society, culture and business.

Anyone who has ever worked in a team has undoubtedly encountered differing levels of member contribution, engagement, and commitment. While some work autonomously with little coaching, others require constant monitoring, and a few might actively create friction with leadership, interrupting work flow and questioning direction and motives.  In the best of circumstances, collaborators provide mutual help, share information, and courtesy reigns, creating a climate of organizational cooperation conducive to efficiency and learning.  On the flipside, teams can suffer from pernicious and counter-productive behavior such as free-riding, cynicism, and low socialization.

In an ongoing EDHEC study[1], it was revealed that of 10 qualified managers, between three and five encounter situations of poor cooperation in the work place every day (absenteeism, loafing, not responding to e-mail, poor communication habits, inability to contribute to teams etc.)  In the context of management, virtuous citizenship behavior including the umbrella concept “cooperation” is an obvious asset. But how do you actually obtain virtuous cooperation from every stakeholder?  

What factors shape social virtues like cooperation?

Modern forms of corporation are particularly vulnerable to flailing levels of virtue because the larger the number of people and groups, the more it becomes possible to free ride, cheat, and engage in individualist pursuits that do not prioritize the common good. The likelihood of diverse cultural groups working within organizations today also challenges the balance in mindsets with a greater risk of confrontation between different values systems and competing social goals and norms. Large organizations comprised of unrelated persons are particularly exposed to the dangers of conflicting commitments, loyalties and cultural difference because they often involve multiple coalitions and interest groups whose collective behaviors compete for limited resources. Perceptions of equality, fairness, trust, duty, honor and engagement may vary greatly. A corporate culture which rewards stakeholders for virtuous citizenship behavior invests in its own social capital, an intangible feature of group behavior that is believed to lie at the very foundation of successful economies.

A corporate culture which rewards stakeholders for virtuous citizenship behavior invests in its own social capital, an intangible feature of group behavior that is believed to lie at the very foundation of successful economies.

Five key factors boost organizational citizenship behavior, conducive to a cooperative climate. 

  1. Hiring and evaluation processes should include an assessment of a person’s cooperative potential independent of technical skill. Helpfulness, solidarity, generosity and spontaneous goodwill are key human capital assets that remain too discrete in human resources policies.
  2. The salary/effort tradeoff required to carry out a job has to ensure that no member feels that cooperating is costly to themselves. This cost/benefit equation must be continually monitored and take into consideration the on-the-ground realities of competitor firms and the local economy.
  3. There must be a sense of fairness framing differentials in salary, task, responsibility and privilege. Effective fairness distribution might involve standards, procedures and “compliance-oriented” practices (hiring policies, working conditions, role clarification, instructions, quality control, feedback and promotion) which normalize expectations.
  4. While too many rules may create an environment of rigidity and suspicion, rules are vital and enforcing them for all stakeholders is key.  Formal and informal rules and rule enforcement need to be carried out because justice creates certainties that ensure individuals against the risk of being taken advantage of and minimizes free-riding. A rule-abiding community advertises a high value placed on equality, fairness and responsibility.
  5. A leader’s altruistic disposition, the self-control of narcissism and the virtuous reputation of leaders raises organizational trust and sets a model for individuals to emulate.

If any of the five pillars of citizenship behavior becomes scarce in an organization, natural cooperators (altruists) will start to refrain from being helpful and generous as the environment becomes too predatory and costly to the virtuous. Organizations faced with a cooperation deficit will be obliged to spend a lot of time in accounting procedures tallying up dues and debts to create a sense of fairness and justice that are building blocks for a cooperative mindset. 

Building the cooperative enterprise

Unfortunately, citizenship in the work place is far less common than what one might think. In research conducted at EDHEC Business School, almost half of the respondents to a cooperation survey reported an unequal distribution of work and benefits, the narcissism of leaders and an absence of rules and rule enforcement. Stress issues at work seemed to emerge from these violation, creating low involvement and a sense of futility. 

Organizational psychologists remind their readership that people are not only motivated by tangible rewards such as status or money, but that they are also likely to seek out complex intangible rewards at work such as recognition, admiration, friendship, happiness and self-esteem. By rewarding virtuous behavior and implementing a citizenship norm where these features become important and visible, organizations can build a cooperative enterprise where all stakeholders feel safe, recognized and truly implicated in a collective project. Well-being and climate indicators of cooperative corporations include altruistic behavior, conscientiousness, sportsmanship, courtesy, humor and happiness.They are the foundations of a community of empowered persons able to weather the unpredictable storms of markets, competition and disruption.

Groups that have cultural norms favoring this complex pro-social dynamic that balances the individual and group welfare are likely to be more sustainable

Managing a cooperative team

A competitive advantage is endowed on groups able to foster the moral, motivational and material incentives that push groups to be pro-social. If organizations are subject to the same evolutionary forces of competition, fitness and selection as any human group over history, cooperative people, cooperative rules and a cooperative morality are evolutionary assets because they create a competitive advantage at the level of the group – at the micro, meso and macro levels. Groups that have cultural norms favoring this complex pro-social dynamic that balances the individual and group welfare are likely to be more sustainable.  Although governance is vital to maintaining this balance and ensuring against cooperation violations, the game-changing personality of an exceptional leader is just one element in this dynamic.The bottom-up cooperation potential nurtured by family, educational systems, spiritual inclination and culture brings the most important long term benefit to society. 

If managers suspect that there is a cooperation deficiency in their work environment, there are questions to ask that may help remedy a local situation:

Are work, responsibility and rewards distributed fairly in the eyes of participants?

Are rules clear and are they enforced for everyone?

Is enough being done to curtail cheating and free-riding?

Is work designed to help employees meet goals, or rather does it primarily serve managerial purposes?

Are cooperators and altruists rewarded?

Is a cooperative disposition embedded into the hiring, training and assessment objectives of my organization?


Want to read more?

Argyle, M., 1991. Co-operation: The basis of sociability. New York: Routledge.

Kabasakal, H. & Bodur, M., 2004. Humane orientation in societies, organizations and leader attributes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

McCrae, R. & Allik, J. éds., 2002. The five factor model of personality across cultures. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.

Nowak, M. & Highfield, R., 2012. Super cooperators: Beyond the survival of the fittest. London: Canongate.

Pinker, S., 2002. The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York: Penguin Books.

Tomasello, M., 2009. Why we cooperate. Cambridge: MA: MIT Press.

Uslaner, E., 2004. Trust as a moral value. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wilson, E., 2012. The social conquest of the earth. London: Liveright.

Witte, A. & Tensaout, M., 2017. Mapping the Cooperative Landscape: Spatializing an Intangible Social Capital Variable. World Values Research, 9(3), pp. 1-34.

[1] This estimation is based survey evidence involving more than 600 professional respondents representing fifteen countries and primarily France and the USA.