Stop assuming employees aren't co-operative

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At a recent masterclass for the Future of Work Research Consortium, I brought up the question: what would HR policies and processes be like if companies based them on the assumption that their employees are programmed to be helpful to others?

My starting point was the realisation that in most organisations, HR seems to be set up to act as a buffer between the company and its employees’ worst natures. The ‘worst nature’ they imagine is that of someone whose priority is to take what they can while giving back as little as possible in return.

This is in contrast to what we see around us. If you take a look at the people you know, you’ll notice that in their lives outside work, they often give their time and resources to help others.

In fact, outside work, most of us are what Professor Adam Grant defines in his book Give and Take as “givers…people who contribute to others without expecting anything in return”, or “matchers [who] aim to trade evenly”. Far fewer people are “takers” who “strive to get as much as possible from others”.

If we apply Grant’s concept to my question, it becomes: “What would happen if we turned the tables?” Here are my thoughts on how business would look if we based HR policy on the belief that people like to co-operate.

Firstly, it would revolutionise the selection process. If you were building an organisation with the awareness that some people are “givers”, others are “matchers” and some are “takers”, who would you want to hire?

I imagine the first change most companies would make would be to redesign their selection process to favour more co-operative individuals.

It would also ensure performance management had a much more positive focus. If your policies are based on employees being trusted collaborators, you would also assume that every worker is doing the best they can. As a result, development processes would be run on the assumption that employees have a positive outlook and are prepared to coach and mentor colleagues. People wouldn’t be ranked against each other; instead, managers would focus on building each individual’s strengths.

It would lead to employers providing meaningful work for everyone. In an environment where we assume everyone will be generous with their skills and time, it would be easier to design jobs that allow each employee to share their knowledge with others.

All this means employers would find it easier to provide their workforce with opportunities to give something back. Co-operative people tend to give across the board, they don’t restrict their giving to a single context. In an organisation based on a culture of giving, the working day would be structured to allow ample time to give to the community around them as well as the business.

Such changes might make the workplace a nicer place, but how would they add value to the business? I feel that one of the advantages co-operative people bring is their ability to build far-reaching networks of weak ties – those slight connections we all create on an everyday basis and which have proven to be more valuable than strong ties (friendships, family relationships) in the context of work.

People who are generous enough to help those they don’t know well build networks as wide as they are strong, and wide networks are extremely valuable, not only to the individual, but to their organisation as well.

It seems clear that assuming employees are inclined to co-operate makes sense. However, actually changing HR policies and processes is a much taller order.

Aligning HR systems with the realities of work today isn’t happening. It’s time to start asking ourselves why.

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School

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