The Brotherhood of Man

Last fall in China, before a full house attending a finance conference, Bill Clinton charmed the crowd. Silhouette Friends. Sunset WaterNot too surprising since this is Bill’s modus operandi, and the man does it so well. He spoke on a wide range of topics, including his conviction that cooperation is the key to all that is good. Not competition, not conflict. Cooperation.

He even went so far as to say, according to the Wall Street Journal, “In the history of our planet, the species that have triumphed are the cooperators. That’s ants…And humans. And termites and bees.”

Before you start wondering how humans got lumped in with insects, it’s worth thinking hard about his observation. In a world where we view competition as the best and only way to progress, our ex-president serves up the old-school love thy neighbor as thyself philosophy as the smart person’s way to go.

I decided to look into the role of cooperation in human society and human evolution. Turns out there is a decent amount of research that points to a clear fact: humans cooperate to an extent not found in any other mammal, even those mammals considered to be “social.” Among other social mammals there is no real division of labor, no true care for the sick, no concern about group reprimand if one member takes undue advantage of the weakness of another. As Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson found in 2009’s “Culture and the Evolution of Human Cooperation” something happened over the past two million years, evolutionary-wise. Our early ancestors decided that cooperating was better than being mercenary, and so began a change in human psychology that allowed us to create complex, multi-layered societies where the good of all balances itself against the interest of one.

All this buzzed in my head just weeks after being reminded of the showman skills of Robert Morse, most recently seen as advertising exec Bert Cooper on Mad Men. Morse’s original claim to fame came from his portrayal of J. Pierpont Finch, the shrewd and childlike rising corporate star in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The musical caps off with Finch saving his skin while paying sly tribute to human brotherhood and the idea that we’re tied together more tightly than the strength of those individual desires that threaten to rip us apart.

In the midst of all this beautiful brother and sisterhood stuff, a contradiction appeared. If cooperation is a normal and even deeply advantageous state of human life, why are we rewarded primarily for our individual output and performance? Why is there talk about the importance of teams but an unequal recognition of them? Why don’t we put enough skin in the game, as it were, for what we produce together rather than separately?

For years, I lead groups of people and I intentionally worked to make us gel together as a team. I valued support and cooperation. I encouraged the team to pick up the slack for each other if someone needed help. For me, the deepest satisfaction came from witnessing the collaboration and kinship these colleagues had for one another. I was able to give them ad hoc team rewards or group recognition but when it came time for annual performance reviews and compensation rewards, I was asked to rate them one to the other, to fit this collective into individual boxes and in effect pull them apart to reward them. Some years it was easy to find the team member who stood out. More often than not, though, the performance shown by at least part of the team was so on par that I had to make unnatural choices to fit an unnatural model.

Granted, there are companies that use partial or even full-team centered performance models. CEOs certainly understand that relying on a group of disparate individuals to ensure strategic success is limited; the real benefit of bringing together a group of highly skilled leaders lies in the manner in which they function as a cohesive team, each focused on his/her area of expertise but fully committed to the entire organization.

Now, if this wisdom was used to recast many reward and recognition programs, we might get ourselves to the point of more fully expressing the cooperative strength of human behavior. Individual performance should remain an input in judging contributions. However, I suggest that more weight be placed on rewarding team effort and results. Like a professional sport team, pay rates are differentiated based on role and skill set, but when a championship game is won, everybody gets a ring.

Might be a nice way to actualize that “brotherhood of man” to be more than a just great musical finale.






One Comment

  1. Kathy Duggan June 17, 2014 Reply

    On a related note, read the book A Bigger Prize by Margaret Heffernan about the downside of competition.

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