Cooperation vs. Competition: Alternative Goal Structures for Motivating Groups in a Resource Scarce Environment

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Author Information : Todd W. Moss (Whitman School of Management, Syracuse University)

Year of Publication : Academy of Management (2015)

Summary of Findings : The results suggest that competitive goal structures are more effective at motivating groups within a resource scarce environment, yet cooperative goal structures can be highly motivating when groups are unfamiliar with one another, as cooperating with unfamiliar groups can provide access to valuable and rare knowledge in resource-scarce settings.

Research Questions : 1. How can private sector organizations effectively motivate communities to voluntarily contribute to an infrastructure project in a context where resources are already so limited?

2. How can local communities overcome the problems associated with free-riding and social loafing that typically plague tasks involving large groups, when such motivation losses are likely to be amplified in a context of extreme resource scarcity?

What we know : Initially, private sector organizations elected to simply donate funds to local communities for various infrastructure projects. However, this ‘pure charity’ approach became increasingly criticized for its tendency to create a sense of ongoing dependency amongst locals, and a corresponding need for constant re-investment on the part of the private sector organization.

More recently, such organizations have begun to experiment with a ‘co-investment’ approach in which communities are asked to contribute a small amount towards the total cost of the infrastructure project. Such contributions are not so much to defray the up-front financial costs of the project, as to generate a sense of empowerment and psychological ownership that will improve the level of independent care and maintenance of the infrastructure over the long-term.

Novel Findings : As resource scarcity increases in the task environment, so do the opportunity costs for engaging in one particular task versus other tasks. These increased opportunity costs, in turn, affect the relative efficacy of competitive versus cooperative goal structure. Namely, the costs associated with cooperation (which involve both increased intra- group and inter-group coordination) are considerably higher than those associated with competition (which involves only increased intra—group coordination) within a resource scarce environment.

Our study suggests that levels of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation associated with cooperation and competition are not necessarily embedded within these goal structures, so much as contingent upon the level of available resources. While prior research has suggested that cooperative goal structures are perceived as more intrinsically motivating (i.e. promote strong feelings of ‘shared fate’) than competitive goal structures, our findings suggest that the sense of excitement and satisfaction associated with competition can be greater than cooperation within a resource scarce environment.

Novel Methodology : Coordinated a field experiment with 44 school construction projects in Sri Lanka, consisting of multiple rounds of focus groups, interviews, and surveys over a one year period.

Implications for Practice : Much as the motivation of community members to work together in building the school was a function of how much it benefited their overall goal to survive and improve, so too is the motivation of employees to invest themselves within a particular task likely to be a affected by the degree to which doing so aids or inhibits their larger goals for promotion, peer acceptance, or other overshadowing objectives.

Whereas prior work has focused on how a focal firm can develop trust with another actor, or can become embedded within an existing network of actors over time to address governance concerns, our findings suggest that even firms that exist outside of such informal structures can immediately leverage relational mechanisms by directly linking the behaviors of existing actors with one another.

Full Citations : Kistruck, G., Lount, R., Smith, B. Bergman, B., & Moss, T.W. In Press. Cooperation vs. Competition: Alternative Goal Structures for Motivating Groups in a Resource Scarce Environment. Academy of Management Journal.

Abstract : There is a growing consensus that cooperative goal structures are more effective at motivating groups than competitive goal structures. However, such results are based largely on studies conducted in highly-controlled settings where participants were provided with the necessary resources to accomplish their assigned task. In an attempt to extend the boundary conditions of current theoretical predictions, we undertook a field experiment within a base-of-the-pyramid setting where resource scarcity is extremely high. Specifically, we collected data on 44 communities within rural Sri Lanka who were tasked with contributing a portion of their resources to the construction of a school building; 24 were assigned to a competition condition and 20 to a cooperation condition. The results of our field experiment, and subsequent follow-up interviews and focus groups, collectively suggest that competitive goal structures generally lead to higher levels of motivation within a resource scarce environment. However, our results also suggest that cooperative goal structures can be highly motivating when groups are unfamiliar with one another, as cooperating with unfamiliar groups can provide access to valuable and rare knowledge within such settings.

Todd Moss

Todd Moss

Professor Moss is assistant professor of entrepreneurship and sustainability. His research interests focus on the intersections of entrepreneurship, innovation and social responsibility.
Todd Moss
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