Four ways to build your team and make them unstoppable
Our world is built of the product of people successfully cooperating. Life, as we know it, is only possible through unspoken convention, and that which surrounds us – houses, roads, technology, and any other artefact – is there only because humans were able to coordinate their actions towards a common end. But people are individuals as well as social beings, and the pull of selfish motives and personal goals can distract, wreck, and ruin endeavours in which their labours are an essential element.
As a leader in your business, your duty to the enterprise is to develop an environment in which your team works in cooperation, to produce something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Robert Axelrod’s strategy classic, The Evolution of Cooperation, provides foundational principles around which a great team must develop, and how a team leader can construct an environment in which cooperation will flourish.
1. Enlarge the shadow of the future
“[No] form of cooperation is stable when the future is not important enough relative to the present.”
Your role, as leader of a team, involves defining expectations. A team in which its membership is in constant rotation will not succeed. Enlarging the shadow of the future means emphasising durable relations – it essential that each member of the team knows that others will be there for them, and that they will be a support for the other members of the team. Frequency of interactions is also critical – a team that knows the state-of-play of the present is more likely to maintain forward direction. The future is brought nearer, and looms larger. Bringing people closer more often goes hand-in-hand with keeping others away. Limiting interactions that are outside of the scope of certain members of the team will keep frustrations at bay for those stuck in interactions in which they are not necessary.
2. Change the pay-offs
People coordinate their actions around what they see as the available options. As team-leader, you must be in control of the implicit options for action. There is a risk, in any team, that people won’t do what they are expected to do, and this results in knock-on effects for the other members who are forced to divert their efforts in order to pick-up the slack. Having clear boundaries for what is not acceptable, and sticking to those rules, is critical. Communicating clearly the advantages of success is equally important – your team should be confident about the future, and confident that others will, like them, be committed to seeing that it becomes reality.
3. Teach people to care, teach reciprocity
A successful team knows each other. People cooperate best when they recognise that their own welfare is positively affected by the team around them. It can be easy for people to withdraw to a selfish pursuit of their own goals, but this attitude ends up leaving everyone worse off.
But encouraging altruism is not enough – it is possible for a deeply selfish person to reap the rewards of an altruistic environment, and contribute little in exchange. To avoid these situations, your team should look to reciprocity – if someone helps them, they should aim to help back. If a team member is consistently resistant to helping others, the team is empowered to censure that member. The result of this system is that positive reciprocation becomes commonplace, as people recognise that not doing the right thing will lead to bad results – your team polices itself.
4. Improve recognition abilities (and recognise ability)
Your team should know each other – and they should recognise what each does and why they do it. With the previous factors in play, your team should be able to cooperate successfully – recognising the roles of others underlies what comes to be known as trust among your team members. When the team has clear knowledge of each other’s functions, and are confident about what others have done, they can be confident too about what others are going to do.
Axelrod concludes his chapter on how to promote cooperation with this insight: “Promoting good outcomes is not just a matter of lecturing the players about the fact that there is more to be gained from mutual cooperation than mutual defection. It is also a matter of shaping the characteristics of the interaction so that over the long run there can be a stable evolution of cooperation.”