Starving sheep at work

The problems in my workplace – and probably yours – have to do with starved sheep.

It’s become fashionable to appeal to doing the right and pleasant thing. We focus on a contractual “commitment to my co-workers”, we are attempting to eliminate a lot of the negative elements of a workplace environment. Things worked well when we instituted this change. There was a palpable upward tick in employee satisfaction and morale. Yet in the months since, there has been a pretty significant – and constant – slide back down towards where we were before. And it’s all because of those hungry sheep. (And a lack of pirates.)

Or, rather, it’s the same problem as what the sheep faced. Back hundreds of years ago, grazing was done on a common field shared by all the herders. In principle, each person would be using only their share of the land, and there would be enough for everyone’s sheep. But such an arrangement – where all are responsible collectively, but none are responsible individually – tends to end up with some people overusing the resource. Then not everyone has enough, and it can leave what was once a fertile commons simply a barren dustbowl.

The tragedy of the commons – as the above example is called – is a frequently-invoked justification for privatization. The argument implies that if you have to bear the cost of your own overuse, then no-one else gets harmed by your mistakes. The interesting thing is that this seems to happen in relationships as well.

Jonathan Haight gave a talk at the 2008 TED conference in Monteray. In it – at about 11’30” – he talks about this problem: (I’m paraphrasing)

In 2002, the paper “Altruistic Punishment in Humans” by Fehr and Gachter was published in Nature. In it, they discussed their unusual experiment on cooperation. An experiment was rigged where everyone could put some money into a collective “pot”, it was doubled, and then divided among everyone there. Everyone – not just the people who contributed. At first, nearly everyone participated, and fairly quickly co-operation was at an astounding low rate. People began to “free ride” – that is, they’d collect benefits without contributing anything. As a result, fewer people wished to contribute. It was the tragedy of the commons all over again.

Until the punishments began.

In round seven, the experimenters added consequences – players could gossip, or everyone had to contribute, or you’d get a lesser share if you didn’t contribute. As soon as consequence began to show up, participation in the whole system shot back upwards, and continued to rise. It didn’t matter what the consequence was – as long as there was a visible consequence for being a free rider.

In our workplace, the tragedy of the commons – what caused the sheep to starve – is in the hamstringing of already existing social pressures. Before, gossip, managerial punishment, and group exclusion served as imperfect punishment methods to avoid problems. Now, however, any managerial correction is administered in secret. Social pressure from the group cannot be legitimately exercised, and those with the strongest egos (and who don’t mind conflict) survive personal confrontation.

This unintended consequence of trying to make the workplace a kinder place is bringing the tragedy of the commons back into personal workplace relationships. Those who do the right thing gain no benefit, but clearly see those who take advantage of the system get away with it. Once again, we need that “pirate” spirit to buck the niceness and point out the free riders. Only then can the sheep and pirates live in harmony.