What Makes Teammates Cooperate at Work?

By Brenda R. Smyth

As one of the young women on the U.S. women’s soccer team dribbles down the field, a quick decision to pass to an open teammate rather than shoot is rewarded with a goal that brings the team into the lead.
This kind of cooperation and team focus is valuable not only on the sports scene, but also in today’s business world where teams are rapidly gaining popularity. Organizations see the value in having diverse people with varying experience, knowledge and viewpoints working together. When functioning well, a work team shares information, easily works through disagreement, and learns from each other as they tackle projects or challenges. They’re building competence together, feeling more of a sense of ownership, maximizing individual strengths … and they, along with their organizations, are benefiting.

Take a closer look at some key advantages of cooperation on a work team:

Team Cooperation

Minimizes energy wasted on competing with one another

Knowledge and ideas are shared and employees learn in the process

Communication and trust between employees is strengthened and relationships improve

But the diverse individuals on any given team are often highly talented—each capable of making that winning shot themselves.
What makes an individual resist personal glory and work with others to get things done on a team?
What makes them share information, help each other and speak up bravely when it’s time to find alternate solutions or voice concerns?
Psychologists assure us that cooperation is a natural instinct, observable in children as young as 14 months. But we are also motivated by self-interest—making us less able or willing to work cooperatively.
Personality and situational variables that lead to cooperative team behavior:

– Individuals with high social value orientation—People generally fall into three categories: Cooperative, individualistic or competitive. While most people want positive outcomes for all (cooperative), some are less concerned about outcomes for others (individualistic) or may seek to undermine others in an effort to win (competitive), suggest findings from Jake P. Moskowitz and Paul K. Piff.
Individuals with high emotional intelligence—Individuals able to experience and understand the emotions of other people are more likely to act with greater cooperation.  
– There’s a culture of cooperation. Our observations of others’ behavior affects our own beliefs about cooperation. Generally, cooperation tends to evoke more cooperation and competition evokes more competition. These norms have a big influence on behavior and whether we feel guilt for not cooperating or disapproval toward those who don’t cooperate.
– An assumption of reciprocity is present. One recent study suggests that our motivation to cooperate increases when we believe we will receive benefits in return. If someone chooses to cooperate with us, we will return the favor even if other members of our group don’t, report psychological scientist Angelo Romano and  co-author, Daniel Balliet.
– The reward for cooperation is great or there’s a cost for noncooperation. Cooperation can be promoted by building a reward based on team results, recommends Gustavo Razzetti for the Liberationist. A shared goal helps groups work together.
– Teams are smaller. In large groups, individuals feel more anonymity and are more pessimistic about the efficacy of their efforts for collective outcomes.
– Teams have strong communication skills. Our interactions with teammates give us cues and help us size up team members’ trustworthiness. As part of a team, we must share information and feelings. When individuals possess strong communication skills, they interact in ways that help save time and build strong relationships, working through conflict or disagreement—encouraging cooperation.
– There’s trust and a belief that others are honest and cooperative. Low levels of trust can cause an individual to feel that they might be taken advantage of. Team members who consistently don’t pull their weight and assume others will pick up the slack or individuals who take over a project can cause team members to stop cooperating. This behavior on a team can lead to a collapse of cooperation.
– There’s identification with a specific group or organization. People are more willing to make personal sacrifices in support of a group they identify with, according to Moskowitz and Piff. Emphasizing people’s group identity helps bind them together so they are more likely to act for the common good. (This emphasis can, however, reduce overall trust and cooperation between different groups.)

Team Cooperation

Humans possess natural instincts for both cooperation and self-interest. These two tendencies can pull in opposite directions when individuals come together in work teams. Understanding and influencing the factors that affect how readily we cooperate are critical in getting the best from your teams.