A “whopping effect”: How “Knowing” Improves Teamwork.

Posted by jlubans on April 20, 2015


The notion of “common knowledge” is featured in the March issue of the “Harvard Gazette”. The article confirms how levels of common knowledge can affect working relationships and productivity. I was drawn to this report because I teach about teamwork (cooperation among humans), conflict and collaboration.
The study (co-authored by graduate student Kyle Thomas and Prof. Steven Pinker) tests “four levels of knowledge for how participants could earn more by working together:
In the private knowledge condition, a participant (either a “butcher” or a “baker”) was told he or she could earn 10 cents more for working with the partner but was not given information about what the partner knew.” The second and third knowledge conditions improved on the participants’ shared knowledge. In the fourth level, the common knowledge condition, the improved payoff was presented as public information - indeed broadcast over loud speakers - readily comprehended by every participant.
“Each was offered a choice: Try to work together for mutual benefit … or work on their own for a lesser, but certain profit.”
So what happened? “’What we found was that, for private knowledge, even if we varied the payouts, or the number of people involved, only about 15 percent of people cooperated,’ Thomas said. ‘With shared knowledge, we saw about 50 percent, and with common knowledge, it was 85 percent. It was just a whopping effect.’”
So, what does this study of would-be butchers and bakers have to do with the workplace? What’s the take away?
Well, some of the theory I stress in class involves best practices in setting up a team to work on a problem. Also, I talk about conflict resolution and how the several ways of managing conflict are bounded by knowledge conditions. For example, collaborating as a way to resolve conflict requires high assertiveness and cooperativeness, both sides sharing knowledge and understanding – nothing relevant is hidden. Conflict avoidance – a very popular strategy in cultures the world over - features low assertiveness and low cooperation. (And, little shared knowledge; after all, you are avoiding each other!)
Tuckman’s stages of group development (form, storm, norm, perform and adjourn) are bounded by high or low trust and knowledge, shared or not. The higher the trust and greater the shared knowledge (nothing held back) the greater - Tuckman would have it - the opportunity for a group to be highly effective at doing its job. Similarly, low trust and low knowledge will result in a pseudo-team, not an effective team.
Of course, unlike antiseptic laboratory conditions, the workplace may not be the safest place in which to reveal one’s motives, to bare one’s soul, so to speak. We are conditioned somewhat at work, home and in school to hold back, to repress, inhibit our natural inclination to work with and help each other. I may skirt someone sleeping in a doorway but I will help – without being asked - a young parent haul her child and stroller down a flight of subway stairs. I might ignore a panhandler openly soliciting for “beer money”, but I will give money to a stranger who tells me at a highway rest stop that he is on “empty”. In the workplace, I will compete with work colleagues, seeking a personal win in order to gain status and compensation. My preference may be for cooperation but the organization makes it near impossible, maybe even dangerous to “broadcast over loud speakers” one’s common knowledge. Instead, our best inclinations – indeed our natural human impulses - are blunted and uncooperative behavior is rewarded. If the organization really does not support openness and trust, then the “whopping effect” in the laboratory cannot survive in the scrum of the workplace. This research does confirm for me that an open and trusting workplace, free and democratic, is central to group achievement and productivity.
Alas, we seem inured to the way it is and continue the hierarchic traditions rather than try out other structures, even a compromise like a hybrid organization.

© John Lubans 2015

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