Valuing co-operation

I’d just spent the day listening to employees sharing issues. You’ll be familiar with the list– lack of resources, lack of honest conversations; people competing, taking credit for work, poor leadership, controlling behaviours. On days like this I wonder how people work together at all let alone achieve anything!.

As I stood in line for the bus that evening, I looked around. The city was crowded; people standing at traffic-lights patiently waiting for the change, others side-stepping their way around the bus line, drivers giving way to each other, somebody helping a kid in a stroller. Little acts of courtesy, civility and tacit cooperation were everywhere. One of those sparkling moments hit me! In spite of all that we complain about, it is astonishing that everyday, in myriad of ways we, as human beings cooperate. And, mostly this cooperation has at its essence good faith in our ability to live together and the good will to do it.

So why don’t we notice this? Obviously each day people are faced with many experiences both good and bad. But when we come to report them we focus on just one or two (usually the ones that we react to negatively). Our brains want shortcuts and as a result we language our experience as simplistic opposites. For example, at a recent meeting I facilitated with 100 employees, the first hour was taken over by ‘trouble talk’. A simple question about how people experienced their workplace, filled the room with complaints. After a while, as a listener, I became genuinely curious. Most people had been at the company for over ten years and furthermore it was a successful company. Spontaneously I asked them why they stayed if it was so bad. People looked back at me in astonishment. “What do you mean”, one said. “It’s not that bad”. I seized the moment, asking groups to talk about the “not so bad”. A different story emerged, showing that the culture was neither one or the other, but both!. More significantly, I was told that the loyalty, trust and respect they had of each other and the company led to their daily cooperation and success.

Although cooperation is ubiquitous, what underpins it is usually hidden. I think we need to “sing up” the good will that is also ever-present in our daily experience. Human life is social life; we have to cooperate to survive. When different perceptions bump into each other, we usually seek to negotiate, moderate and even just tolerate others in order to get our work done. It’s also true that when personal values and goals are aligned with the workplace shared purpose and values, these things become easier.

However the DNA that holds us together is the underlying pervasive sense of good will we have towards others. Even strangers as well as adversaries co-operate in little ways every day when they have a shared purpose. I don’t want to lose sight of this.