Monday, September 23, 2019

The Fragility of Genuine Workplace Cooperation...Or, Avoid Sliding Down the Cooperation Curve

In last month’s blog posting, I described a project in which Mark BrayJohanna Macneil, and I carefully look at different meanings of cooperation. We think this is important because greater clarity over contrasting perspectives on cooperation can lead to a deeper understanding among individuals with differing views, whether they are academics, policy-makers, company leaders, workers, or worker advocates. This also helps to reveal important challenges in implementing and sustaining workplace cooperation.

For starters, with sharply differing perspectives, cooperation is a contested idea, and cooperation is hard to implement when the parties lack a shared vision and common understandings. More deeply, a dynamic consideration of the tensions across different forms of cooperation helps reveal how there can be a natural tendency to move away from cooperative employment relationships, even when there are strong institutional supports or the parties to the employment relationship devote considerable effort and appropriate resources to maintaining cooperation. My collaborators and I address these dynamics by locating differing perspectives on what we call a “cooperation curve.”
The Cooperation Curve
We place collaborative pluralism and cooperative unitarism at the top of the cooperation curve because, as discussed in the previous post, these are the only views of cooperation in which workers and their employers are truly working together (and thus engaged in genuine cooperation). Achieving these forms of genuine cooperation require overcoming resistance among workers and/or labor unions (on the left-side of the hill) and/or among managers and business leaders (on the right-side of the hill), and also requires work to maintain this genuine cooperation. Without continued investment, we argue that a degradation or running down of cooperation ("entropy") will occur, represented by a movement downwards from the center of the cooperation curve on either side.

Starting from the middle or peak of the curve, moving one step to the left or right leads to what we think of as pragmatic opposition to cooperation. The assumptions in these perspectives are not fundamentally different from their neighbors that support cooperation, such that one could envision a shift between adversarial and cooperative pluralism or between cooperative and autocratic pluralism as being determined by a pragmatic calculation of the best way to achieve one’s goals. One of the important insights here is how easy or subtle this shift can be, at least initially. In a situation of consultative unitarism, managers might start to see cooperation as slow and less decisive, leading to subtle increases in unilateral decision-making, and the slide down the cooperation curve has begun. Managers and executives might also be trained to think that it is their responsibility to craft organizational policies, and prejudices might cause them to think that they have unique expertise, which pushes them toward autocratic unitarism.

Similarly, consider a relationship characterized by collaborative pluralism where workers are represented by a union. This, too, can be a fragile situation. Union leaders might think that strong leadership means winning gains for members, not cooperating with management which risks them being labelled as a sell-out. And thus a push for a stronger advocacy of workers’ interests can start a slide away from genuine cooperation. Indeed, narrow perceptions of self-interest can push employees, union leaders, managers, executives and others to prioritize their own needs at the expense of others, which can in turn create a backlash from others who react by prioritizing their own needs. All of this slides the parties away from a mutual gains focus and genuine cooperation.

In these ways, we believe that the cooperation curve reveals that the central tension within cooperation is the duality between mutuality and self-interest. Mutuality is easily undermined unless both sides take some degree of responsibility for addressing the other side’s interests and commit effort and resources to the cooperative venture. Moreover, this effort must be sustained, or cooperation may gradually decline in a process we call entropy. Indeed, this helps explain why key individuals (that is, “champions”) are key for achieving and maintaining cooperation. Our curve additionally makes clear that it can be management or labor that is responsible for failing to achieve genuine cooperation. So worker-centered perspectives should stop uniformly blaming employers for the lack of cooperation, and managerialist perspectives should stop uniformly blaming trade unions and workers. Rather, genuine cooperation can be fragile and therefore requires an explicit understanding of shared visions as well as attention from all involved. Otherwise, it's all too easy to slide down the curve away from genuine cooperation.

Source: Mark Bray, John W. Budd, and Johanna Macneil (forthcoming) "The Many Meanings of Cooperation in the Employment Relationship and Their Implications," British Journal of Industrial Relations here to read the full paper.

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