BOOK REVIEW: Cooperate and compete - you can do both

Friend and Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both, by Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer

“WE LIVE in an unstable, dynamic world. Within a matter of moments, resources can vanish and social relationships can crumble,” explain the authors Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer, of Columbia and Wharton business schools respectively.

The value of this book lies in its exploration of the tension between cooperation and competition. The authors draw on recent findings in neuroscience and behavioural psychology which indicate that the tension between cooperation and competition “is wired into the very architecture of the human brain”. These insights indicate how we can be more successful in our relationships at work, in our communities, and even at home. This review will focus on the work context.

Since our social world is both unstable and dynamic, we use social comparison to help us identify where we fit in. This comparison is bi-directional: up and down. Both looking up and down has critical implications for our life satisfaction and motivation.

Looking up makes us feel worse, but can be a motivator to greater action. Looking down makes us feel better, but can lead to complacency.

The Milibands and the Kennedys

Consider the following cases: the Milibands and the Kennedys.

David and his younger brother, Ed Miliband, competed for political leadership of the Labour Party. Ed eventually won, leading David to quit politics, and then leave England. In contrast, Robert Kennedy basked in his older brother John F Kennedy’s presidential success. It even added to his own presidential motivation.

“Social comparisons can also explain why we sabotage and exclude others,” the authors explain.

There are many ways in which we can use the power of social comparison to our benefit. We can anticipate the possibility that our successes will upset others, even if those around us don’t voice their dissent. By erring on the side of modesty about your achievements, negative comparisons can be muted.

Perhaps the most important comparisons are those related to power, a concept no less central to social science than energy is to physics.

The authors' research across a range of business and other situations shows the strong influence of the power we feel, from being interviewed for a job, to impressing a superior in a meeting, to becoming “king” or remaining “king”. In each instance, feeling powerful decreases cortisol, a stress hormone that serves as a psychological inhibitor.

“Neurologically, hormonally, and physiologically, it feels good to be the king. And when we feel like a king, we are more likely to act like one,” the authors observe. However, it comes with a severe downside. Power causes one to feel invincible and invisible. With power comes privilege and because this is so intoxicating, it can turn the powerful into optimistic risk-takers, who don’t heed the boundaries that normally constrain behaviour.

The powerful, the authors explain, often think they are the only ones on the highway, and so are oblivious to the plight of others. They have found that individuals who feel powerful are less likely to activate the prefrontal cortex and cingulate cortex, the neural circuitry that pays attention to others.

This can lead the powerful to lose their kingdoms. In the movie, History of the World - Part I, King Louis XVI shoots peasants instead of clay discs during his target practice. While shooting his subjects into the air, he is told that “the people are revolting… the peasants feel you have no regard for them.”

King Louis XVI responds with absolute shock: “I have no regard for the peasants??? They are my people… I love them.” Clearly they didn’t love him back, and executed him.

Governor Eliot Spitzer, formerly the attorney general of New York, was discovered to be a frequent customer of prostitutes, despite having forcefully led a campaign against organised crime in any of its forms. “Hubris and overconfidence can explain why many powerful people act with selfishness and harshness,” the authors explain.

Holding on to the crown

So how can a king hold on to his crown? It requires that one knows his place in the power hierarchy and acts accordingly. For each there is a range of acceptable power, which if exceeded will lead the person into trouble. Confidence and deference are not mutually exclusive, and it is usually a lack of deference, rather than excess of confidence, that causes the king to fall.

“Our research has shown that the ability to take another’s perspective is a critical ingredient for managing both our friends and our foes,” Galinsky and Schweitzer report. “Just as a car needs both acceleration and a steering wheel to reach its destination, people need power and perspective-taking to be successful.”

A number of approaches have proven to be useful. One is for the powerful person to keep focused on the group goals, rather than his own goal of retaining power. This works because the approach allows the powerful to realise that the others can make valued contributions. Another method is to hold the powerful accountable for their decisions, and require them to explain the rationale behind their actions.

This book is wide ranging. There are chapters identifying where hierarchies add value and where they don’t, why talent adds to the outcome of some teams and hobbles others, where the ability to lie adds value and where it does not, and how to recover when trust has been broken.

Each chapter ends with a section called “Finding the Right Balance”, which offers specific advice that will enhance any leader’s professional repertoire.

Readability:     Light ---+- Serious
Insights:        High +---- Low
Practical:        High -+--- Low

* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Strategy that Works. Views expressed are his own.

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