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Competition or cooperation? Fostering a collaborative workplace

seated individuals working in an office
Jan 5 2021

A collaborative workplace is the goal of many organizations for good reason; in the entrepreneurial world, it fosters an effective exchange of ideas and resources that speeds up development and leads to more innovative, higher-quality products. However, collaboration is not a given outcome, particularly in highly competitive Silicon Valley environments such as technology startup accelerators. These organizations select promising ventures, and in exchange for equity, provide startup funding and other resources such as training and mentorship to a group of selected entrepreneurs. Another key resource that accelerators aim to provide to their entrepreneurs is the help, support, and camaraderie of their peers within the accelerator; by co-locating them within a shared workspace, accelerators intend to foster interactions that will lead to brainstorming and sharing resources amongst group members. A distinct tension exists, however; entrepreneurs may feel a sense of competition to outperform their peers that disincentives them from collaborating with other teams, despite the accelerator's mission to foster collaboration.

The cooperative and competitive elements present in this context make it an ideal setting to examine how a mixed-motive environment can foster or hinder generalized exchange, which study authors Rekha Krishnan (Simon Fraser University), Karen S. Cook (Stanford University), Rajiv Krishnan Kozhikode (Simon Fraser University), and Oliver Schilke (University of Arizona) describe as "unilateral giving without expectations of direct reciprocity.” Such research can have broad implications for fostering collaboration and improving workplace culture well beyond Silicon Valley. Between 2013 and 2015, Rekha Krishnan spent her post-tenure sabbatical at the Stanford Institute for Research in the Social Sciences (IRiSS) with IRiSS Faculty Director Karen Cook. Rekha Krishnan’s collaboration with Cook to understand social support dynamics among co-located entrepreneurs was initiated during this period. Krishnan gained access to a prominent Silicon Valley accelerator, which allowed her to conduct ethnographic research observing workplace interactions among three cohorts of entrepreneurs over nine months. Insights from this ethnographic fieldwork underscore the importance of engaging in the right kind of interaction rituals to build healthy communities of giving. 
Q: Your fieldwork identified two cohorts of entrepreneurs that developed strong interpersonal bonds and freely offered helped to one another despite the competitive accelerator environment, and one cohort that did not. What factors determined these different outcomes?
In the beginning, entrepreneurs across all cohorts actively sought help from their peers. However, peers’ responses to these early resource requests differed across cohorts, setting in motion positive or negative exchange dynamics. At the core of these exchange dynamics were interaction rituals within social events, such as formal onboarding events, weekly progress meetings, informal dinners, parties, or hiking. My fieldwork revealed two distinct group-level interaction rituals—bonding and tournament rituals. 
The accelerator program was structured so that one of the cohorts regularly engaged in weekly progress meetings, while others did not. The accelerator’s weekly progress meetings resembled tournament rituals where the common focus was on entrepreneurs’ show of strength, i.e., progress made on their products. In other cohorts, informal weekend get-togethers, which we label ‘bonding rituals,’ organically emerged thanks to a formal onboarding event which focused on building familiarity among entrepreneurs. 
In bonding rituals, entrepreneurs let their guard down and opened up about challenges they faced as entrepreneurs. These rituals helped participants realize their common fate as entrepreneurs and the need to help fellow peers. Bonding ritual participants were not only comfortable asking their peers for help but also received help from peers who gave without expecting anything in return. These early acts of giving generated a sense of gratitude among receivers who willingly paid it forward. This giving-gratitude cycle eventually resulted in a thriving community of giving and a dense network populated by affective relationships. 
On the other hand, tournament rituals that focused on entrepreneurs’ show of strength generated an expectation among entrepreneurs to be strategic in exchanging resources with peers. Accordingly, when tournament ritual participants strategically approached knowledgeable peers for help, they declined to help them as they did not see value in doing so. These early failed exchanges became shaming rituals—i.e., entrepreneurs who felt undervalued and rejected by their peers avoided peer interactions to stay away from further negative experiences. This shaming-avoidance cycle resulted in rapid dissolution of ties and what remained, in the end, was a sparsely connected network populated by meaningless encounters. 
Q: Your research focuses on the importance of interaction rituals such as routinely held formal meetings, dinners, and informal get-togethers for fostering strong identification with the group. What lessons does your paper have for organizations which aim to foster a collaborative work environment?
Our findings definitely have implications for organizations aiming to foster a collaborative work environment. Although employees within teams are expected to co-operate, they also compete with each other for promotions. Formal team meetings are a regular feature in organizations. Organizations can foster collaboration by ensuring that meetings focus on the camaraderie among members rather than celebrating their individual wins. Steering clear of a show of strength in formal meetings can also encourage employees to engage in bonding rituals outside the organizational setup, which our study shows is essential for fostering identification with the group.
Moreover, our study suggests that even in highly competitive teams, the introduction of intervening bonding rituals, such as a group hike or barbecue, can reverse negative dynamics set by tournament rituals. Our findings not only have implications for existing teams but also for the onboarding of new members. Even a simple game that involves employees memorizing each other’s hobbies can build familiarity among employees and increase peer acceptance of new members.
Q: Do these findings have implications beyond the workplace?
These findings have implications for society in general and start-up ecosystems in particular. One of the continuing puzzles in sociological research on exchange is whether and how such unilateral giving and receiving can be sustained, as self-interested rational actors can directly benefit by receiving resources without giving any. Scholars have expressed surprise that such systems are even established in the first place. Our findings show that early acts of giving aligned with expectations of support seekers can trigger a gratitude giving cycle that is self-perpetuating. Our study draws attention to the situational dynamics surrounding acts of giving. Individuals give only when they identify with the group, and such identification is generated in interaction rituals in social events.
For instance, the start-up ecosystem in Silicon Valley is populated by social events such as meet-ups and hackathons. Do these events focus on displaying entrepreneurs’ strengths where they race to pursue investors and outperform each other, or do they generate camaraderie among entrepreneurs who comfortably seek support and collaborate to solve problems? The interaction rituals in these events might determine whether they help entrepreneurs escape the perils of bowling alone by granting them the much-needed community spirit. In a pandemic era, where interaction rituals are almost non-existent, our article underscores the importance of bonding rituals for building healthy communities of giving.
The study was recently published in the Administrative Science Quarterly. Read the full paper here.