Reciprocal Altruism and Teamwork – Using Human Nature to Motivate Employees

Why is it that the workplace so often seems like a soap opera? We have all worked with that guy who took credit for work he didn't do, the woman who gossiped about us when we weren't around, the brown-nosing colleague who would do whatever it took to get promoted, and the boss who could care less about how people felt because this is work, and work is supposed to suck. Sometimes we try to fight these workplace battles, to change things, to make a difference, but most of us give up in the end. If human nature is to be selfish, what else can we expect? I think it doesn't have to be that way. Believe it or not, the examples above go against much of our human nature.

Despite our tendencies towards selfishness, our species learned long ago that by working together we can achieve nonzero sum outcomes that benefit us all. Because of this, reciprocal altruism became a good evolutionary strategy. Biologists and psychologists wondered for years why it evolved, because it didn't seem to offer any survival advantage. It makes sense now, because helping those related to us does help propagate our genes (evolution is about genes, not individuals), since they share at least a portion of them with us. This is why we are so willing to help our children – because they have so many of our genes. As the family ties extend, and the percentage of genetic similarity declines, we still offer help, but not at the same heightened level of importance. This human trait, to treat people differently based on our genetic relationship with them, has manifested itself in new ways as the world has become more crowded. Once we become dependent on other people, we treat them better, the way we used to treat families in the early days of human evolution.

I bring this up because I think business leaders should acknowledge this and use it to motivate employees, to improve workplace morale, and to improve corporate culture. The way to do this is to make people feel like they have a connection. Think about it. I am a University of Kentucky grad living in Florida. Sometimes at the grocery or at a restaurant, I see someone with a Kentucky Wildcats shirt on. Instantly we talk and bond, and I feel like there is some connection between us that I don't have with other strangers around me. In this situation, my brain is processing my connection with this person, and I begin to perceive them in a different way. I perceive a bond between us which leads me to trust them more, and thus eventually engage in reciprocal altruism.

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This can be implemented in the workplace too. The right environment will encourage employees to help each other more often. There are three things companies need to do to take advantage of this human tendency.

1. Don't isolate people.In the business world, people don't work well when they feel isolated. Developing a team feeling in the workplace can change the way people feel about their work and other people.

2. Promote teamworkTo be part of a winning team is a wonderful feeling. But just because people are working around each other, or even with each other, doesn't mean they feel that team bond. Groups should acknowledge the contributions of everyone, and not single out a superstar. People need to feel that they are working towards a group goal that is larger than themselves.

3. Change the reward structure.
As long as people are graded primarily on what they alone have accomplished, the incentive to help others is small. Performance appraisals should consider how well an individual's efforts helped achieve team goals.

Helping out team members at work is natural. If the environment is structured properly, our tendencies toward reciprocal altruism will be displayed. If not, a great company asset is not being utilized to the fullest.