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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Nov 6, 2020


Collaboration and cooperation have never been more important. However, people can naturally tend towards self-interest at the expense of the greater good, particularly when they believe they personally have the resources they need. This week we explore how people cooperate more effectively when they can’t solve something on their own. 



Hello and welcome to episode 102 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we bring research to life in your leadership. This week we explore how people cooperate more effectively when they don’t have the resources to solve something on their own.

Imagine you’re living in a small community located beside a river. Everything has been great so far, however there has been recent heavy rain, and now flood waters predicted to arrive the next day. Without action, everyone in the community will lose their home to the rising flood waters. People in this small community have sand bags to help either shore up their own house, or contribute to saving the entire community by building a larger wall of sandbags to protect everyone. The catch being that everyone needs to cooperate to have enough sand bags to save the community. How do people respond to this threat to their town and household?

Recent research demonstrates that the response largely depends on the resources the individuals have at their disposal. Jorg Gross and colleagues setup a range of conditions for participants to respond to, all reflecting a similar scenario to the community at risk from a flood. Each person had some resources, equivalent to the sand bags, that they could either contribute to the community in an attempt to protect everyone, or keep in an effort to protect themselves.

The research found that when people didn’t have enough resources to save themselves individually, they were most willing to contribute to the collective effort. There was still some risk here as people could act in a self-interested way, and therefore the overall community may fail. But in most cases, where everyone had the same level of resource and not enough to save themselves, they successfully cooperated to help the broader community.

As the researchers varied the resources available to individuals, behaviour changed dramatically. Those who had enough resources to save themselves started to withhold resources from the community effort, even when that led to others failing. Similarly, those who didn’t have enough resources and could only rely on community cooperation tended to lose out as the inequities in the community increased over time. Inequality increased as the rounds continued. People began to stock pile resources at the expense of others’ immediate needs.

What’s the lesson here? If people feel they can do something on their own and don’t need others in order to succeed, they are likely to act from a position of self-interest, and are also unlikely to help others out. This continues even when others are at risk of failing or missing out. This finding has obvious implications for public policy, but also applies within our organisations. 

Most organisations survive through cooperation. Despite the silos that so often emerge, every organisation needs good will and cooperation to succeed. In most instances if my team “wins” and your team “loses”, then the overall organisation loses. Cooperation acts like conduits between the silos, helping to share around resources and knowledge. As I’ve presented before, the challenge here is the increasing identification of people with their immediate team rather than the organisation as a whole. That creates conditions where people are less likely to collaborate and cooperate across teams. When we’re focused on our own team, other teams become either a threat or a distraction. 

As leaders, it is more important than ever to help people to see the broader role they play within the organisation, not just within the team. We need to put additional effort into communicating the purpose of the organisation in a way that demonstrates the need for cooperation in order to succeed. It’s really helpful to develop a narrative about how different parts of the organisation work together to achieve the broader purpose. Individual leaders can then share that with their teams. If purpose is defined as individual teams winning, then be prepared for more competition than cooperation. 

Thanks for joining me today, and remember to check out Leadership Today On-Demand. That’s how you can access all of our recorded webinars and online courses, along with weekly quick hits on a range of topics. You can sign up for a free 30 day trial by going to our website,, and follow the on-demand link. Have a great week.  


Gross, J., Veistola, S., De Dreu, C.K.W. et al. Self-reliance crowds out group cooperation and increases wealth inequality. Nat Commun 11, 5161 (2020).