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Altruism and Organizational Behavior

Posted by Raunak Mahajan on July 9, 2013

I enjoy exploring evolutionary explanations for our behaviors. One such fascinating characteristic displayed by human beings is altruism. On an individual level three explanations have been propounded. “The kind of process, where animals help promote the survival and reproductive success of their relatives, is known as kin selection.” Outside relationships reciprocal altruism exists. It thrives on hope for a return of the favor and trust in the sincerity of the receiver. A third explanation for altruism is mutualism where cooperation yields results that individual endeavors fail to achieve.

It is at group level that altruism becomes more intriguing and certain explanations present key lessons for organizations aiming to strengthen teamwork and solidarity among their employees. Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson and philosopher Eliot Sober argue that, “..under certain conditions, it is possible for animal groups to function as the vehicles of selection, where the animals that make up those groups evolve traits that help increase the survival of the group at the expense of other groups or individuals. One of the most crucial conditions to be met is that there must both be competition between individuals in different groups and competition between individuals in the same group….it is crucially important that groups are in competition with each other and not isolated, each living on its own ecological island”.

Organizational-BehaviourIt is easy to see how such an argument can be used to foster constructive competitiveness among different departments/teams in an organization. I manage a manufacturing unit that houses four different production units, each employing around 35 workers. Until recently they worked as “isolated islands”. Each unit was accountable for production actualization with minimal wastage. Quarterly reviews were held with unit supervisors in “isolation”. To keep workers motivated, best performing workers from each unit were rewarded for their efforts.

A couple of months back, I decided to change things. We put the four units in competition with each other and removed the barriers that we had developed between them. The production teams now compete in monthly ‘5S” and Attendance competitions. We no longer reward individuals in the units, but the entire unit team. Quarterly reviews of the four units are held in the presence of representatives of all units. Analytic charts comparing performances of the four units are drawn and their contribution to the company’s top line and bottom line discussed.

While it is too early to judge the outcome of the change, positive signs are visible. Overall attendance of our organization has seen a 12% increase. Unit supervisors have observed stronger camaraderie among the workforce and wastage/defects levels have come down significantly.

While most organizations focus too heavily on dynamics within a team, better results can be generated by adding an external stimulus, an external threat or competition to the team. This will cause team members to evolve behaviors towards each other that will enhance the overall performance of the team.

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One Response to “Altruism and Organizational Behavior”

  1. Raunak, well done. I always find it inspiring to see the findings of the social sciences applied successfully in real life.

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