Keith Sawyer reports on a new book by Michale Tomasello Why We Cooperate. Studies of infants suggest that the urge to help others is innate, and not learned.
Tomasello’s book presents data showing that infants as young as 18 months old try to help others. For example, if they see an unrelated adult who needs help picking up a dropped object, they help right away. From the age of 12 months, if an adult pretends to have lost an object that the child can see, the child will point to the object. Eighteen or twelve months is too early for such behavior to have been learned from parents. As another piece of evidence, Tomasello reports that children don’t begin to help more after they’re rewarded for helping–which suggests it’s not influenced by training.
As kids get older, they start to become more discriminating in their help, as norms are learnt.
You can file this under nature vs nurture, I guess. Before norms, and I would say underlying them, is this innate willingness to help each other. I think so much management convention, based on incentives and “motivation” and control, blinds us to our natural desire to get along.
Organisations create elaborate mission and value statements to support some notion that what holds everyone together is a shared logical purpose and/or set of beliefs. Usually, they’re pretty long-winded and wildly aspirational and don’t seem to represent the grainy reality of organisational life.
Sometimes, facilitators start groups with some activity where the participants list a set of norms for the day. It’s the same idea. Personally, I cringe at such things.
I suspect that any group of people is held together by a much humbler choice, simply to go on together, for now. If we can avoid the temptation to legislate beyond that, I think we might get more of a glimpse of something holding us together that’s actually more powerful than we realise.