Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Cooperative Culture

My good friend María Silvia recently asked me to write about cooperative culture. As that struck me as a reasonable request, here are my thoughts...

The first thing to appreciate is that cooperation is the sociological opposite of competition. Mainstream US culture is rooted in competition—and characterized by hierarchic and adversarial dynamics. The basic notion is that a fair fight will produce the best result. Out of rigorous debate and trial by fire, the best ideas will prevail. (Never mind that the "fights" are rarely fair; that's another topic.)

Cooperative culture is a radically different approach, where you trust the wisdom of the collective as superior to that of the individual. Instead of a battle, you want to have minimal barriers to soliciting relevant input and to welcome divergent views. Rather than responding to differences with combat (We were doing fine until you spoke), in cooperative culture you try to respond with curiosity (Why does that person see this differently—maybe I'm missing something).

Here are features of cooperative culture:

• For cooperative culture to make sense, individuals need to identify with a group that is greater than themselves or their family—otherwise what are you cooperating with? And when this group gathers (to make common cause), there is an emphasis on members thinking in terms of what's best for the group—as opposed to advocating for personal preferences (and hoping that the sum of the parts will add up to a whole).

This is especially potent in decision-making. If there is a strong group affiliation then differences can be seen as a strength (because it broadens the base of ideas and perspectives to work with) instead of an occasion for a winner-take-all battle.

• The power is ultimately held by the group, not by an individual or subgroup who has agreed to play follow the leader. To be sure, it generally makes sense to delegate power to managers and subgroups, but it all flows from the whole.

• In cooperative culture it tends to matter as much how things get done as what gets done. The corollary of this is the primacy of relationships. If you're sacrificing relationships on the altar of principle (which I've tragically seen happen), you're at risk of drowning the baby in the bath water.

• There is a greater emphasis on sharing, which relieves pressure to own (how many lawnmowers does a neighborhood need, anyway; how many snowblowers; how many pickups?). This can have a profound impact on the dollars needed to achieve and sustain a quality of life. With sharing you can substitute access to things for ownership.

• Some people naively think that if you commit to living cooperatively that you can leave the strife and conflict of competitive culture behind. Sorry to say, that's not what happens. In fact, by virtue of purposefully living a life that is more intertwined with others, you'll have more occasion to experience disagreement. Thus, you need to have solid ways to work through conflict if you're going to be happy living cooperatively.
That means being able to recognize and work constructively (non-judgmentally) with emotional responses. While this is a valuable and powerful skill, it is not trivial.

• If you've gotten this far it's probably occurred to you that personal work is required to create and maintain cooperative culture. You'll need to unlearn competitive conditioning and up your game in the arena of social skills. Make no mistake about it, this is work. For a deeper treatment of what I mean, see my Nov 30, 2013 blog Gender Dynamics in Cooperative Groups.

• In cooperative culture you need people filling leadership roles just as in competitive culture, but you tend to be looking for different qualities. See my Sept 27, 2011 blog, 20 Qualities of Effective Cooperative Leadership for a delineation of these. Many cooperative groups fail to discuss what's wanted in this regard, and thereby stumble over developing a culture where (appropriate) leadership is nurtured.

• In the broader US culture, there is tremendous emphasis on the individual (in contrast with the collective). In consequence it is a psychological imperative to know how we are unique and can differentiate ourselves for others. The primary way we accomplish that is through disagreement. Thus, if someone says something that we half agree with, the first thing out of most people's mouth's is , "But… " because we have been conditioned to make clear at our first convenience how we stand out.

In cooperative culture, however, we try to start with what we like about what someone else has said (without waiving our right to state concerns later), and that has a profound impact on the container in which the discussion proceeds. In essence, we tend to find what we're looking for. If you're expecting an argument, that's what you'll find. Alternately, if you're looking for agreement, that tends to be there as well, and problem solving proceeds much differently if the initial response to ideas is supportive rather than questioning—even though both are valid.