An emerging look at evolutionary behaviour is suggesting that we are better suited for survival by working together than in competition. This cooperation imperative has been called “survival of the kindness” which risks lumping affective social generosity and goodwill with effectiveness and desirability and, in doing so, risks the entire enterprise of collaboration-based efforts.
A recent article in Mindfulness Magazine* profiled work of behavioural scientists who’ve looked at the evolutionary patterns of humans throughout the ages and see convincing evidence that the ‘survival of the fittest’ metaphorical explanation for human development is misleading at best or even outwardly wrong altogether. We are socially better off working together than competing.
What I found disconcerting was the term Survival of the Kindest which has been used multiple times in Mindful in its early issues. As attractive as this idea is, it a lens. In the photo above love is visible if you look for it. Indeed the lens is literally focusing on what the photographer wants you to see – love. That we see love through the trees (and in our work) is notable, but it doesn’t mean that collaboration and co-operation is necessarily a loving act. In the case of the picture, it draws our attention past the man sleeping on the street with his cardboard donation placemat lying beside him.
And that might be the problem. Framing co-work as necessarily imbued with a set of qualities like kindness or love may mean we miss seeing the forest, the trees or the people sleeping beneath them.
Why might this idea of linking the two together so emphatically be problematic? After all, who doesn’t want a little more love in their life?
Cruelty of kindness
There are many utilitarian reasons to cooperate, co-create and work with others, which has a lot to do with the kind of problems we face. Collaboration requires co-labour — working together. For complex (sometimes wicked) problems that is usually necessary. For complicated problems (or very large ones like healthcare [PDF] ) that is also usually required. But for simple problems and small ones — of which we encounter in abundance every day and are often embedded within larger, complex ones — working alone might be sufficient and efficient.
Working together requires a set of skills that are often assumed, but not rarely paired up. Working together requires different motivational structures, leadership and coordination efforts than working independently. These are not better or worse, just different.
Coupling kindness with the ‘co’s’ of working together — cooperation, collaboration and co-creation — takes a human experience of generosity and imposes it on our work situations**. Certain contemplative traditions emphasize the role in kindness, generosity and love in all things and that embracing kindness in our daily lives we are enabling greater equanimity with our world around us. But to equate one with the other is to betray another saying from the Buddhist tradition:
Do not confuse the finger pointing to the moon with the moon itself
Thus, do not confuse bringing kindness to co-work with cooperation, collaboration or co-creation itself.
Another issue is the ‘est‘ part of the term survival of the kindest. By placing kindness on some form of evaluative gradient where one is either more or less kind we impose a very specific set of cultural parameters around our work. Who is the kindest in the bunch? Assuming we had some tool to measure kindness (which I don’t know exists) are we really comfortable rating and ranking people’s ability to be kind in their work? Should we reward the kindest of the bunch? What does it mean if we are not the kindest?
You can see where this might go.
Working smarter is kind
Min Basadur and his colleagues have been studying work preferences for over 20 years doing research on how people work together. His Basadur profile (below) is based on rigorous psychometric tested data and allows teams to see what kind of preferences their members have for certain types of work. These are preferences only, not value or competence judgements and amenable to change over time. It can be a tool to validate the way we like to work and help us guide how we work with others as well as potentially identify what parts of the problem finding, framing and solving process so important to design and complexity that we might be best suited for.
For example, some are more amenable to generating ideas, while others are more comfortable organizing them or putting together plans of action that are useful to those who are ready to act. While everyone draws on each quadrant in their life, there are spaces where they feel more at home and what the Basadur profile does is help us identify those so we can use our talents well and provide guidance on areas we might wish to develop. I’ve used the Basadur profile with my own work, my academic learning and with clients to helpful effect in spotting problems. Like anything that can ‘type’ people it needs to be used with care and like the Buddhist quote above, it is important to remember that this is pointing to something (work preference) as opposed to being those things.
Just as the Basadur profile shows preferences for certain type of work there are also aptitudes for certain kinds of work that leverage these preferences, for leadership, and for social engagement. Some are better working in groups and some just prefer it.
Collaboration and it’s co-siblings are frequently touted as desirable, positive qualities, yet like many forms of work it is the context in which they are used that matters as much as whether they are used. Certain problems — as mentioned above — are more likely to need co-work to address, but not all. Perhaps more importantly, not all facets of problem solving require co-labour; some may simply require coordination.
The personality of creative work
Co-work makes many assumptions about people’s work preferences and capabilities that are often untested. It also places certain implicit value judgements on personality type. In her popular TED talk and book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts, Susan Cain speaks to the often hidden, but large segment of our population of people who draw energy from contemplation, solitary work, or reduced social engagement rather than other people. As she points out, there are myths and prejudices placed on those who don’t want the attention or are quiet rather than boisterous in this age of social broadcasting. That has enormous potential implications for our work and quietly excludes those who don’t fit the profile of the innovator, the leader, the ideator or whatever archetype we hold in our cultural minds.
Just as the knee-jerk reaction of many in the social innovation community to bringing things to scale, so too is our push to collaborate and co-create everything all the time. And like scaling, there are well-intentioned motives behind this push. Working together brings in many voices to the problem and appears not to exclude people, however if those people we bring in are not as comfortable (indeed, dislike or feel uncomfortable with) working closely together or not skilled at doing so (it is a skill regardless of your personality) we are creating a new set of inequities in the process of trying to fix others.
The point isn’t that we shouldn’t work together; indeed, many of the problems we face demand it. Rather, it’s worth being creative and reflective about what that means in practice and explore ways to work together closely and also apart in a coordinated manner.
How do we honestly, genuinely, and appropriately engage the voices we need and recognize their work styles, personalities, and preferences in a manner that supports the best co-creative aspects rather than imposing a work-together-at-all-cost approach that can sometimes come through in our rhetoric? How can we foster kindness in what we do organically rather than impose it as a value on our work and recognize that co-work is simply working together, not good or bad or kind or unkind?
In being clear about our intentions and how we create the conditions for us to all meaningfully contribute to social transformation efforts in our own way will be more effective in the long run. By allowing all parts of the system — the big and boisterous, the collaborative, the quiet, the solitary — to come together in ways that fit how we actually work and how we like to work we are much more likely to bring about the innovation and systems change we seek.
* link is to supporting ‘extra’s’ not the original article, which is available only through subscription.
** By work I am referring to any activity that requires some effort to accomplish and not necessarily paid employment
Photo: Cameron Norman
Link: Basadur profile