How to increase cooperation in your organizational culture

Do you feel like your workplace is characterized by a cutthroat environment where you are constantly competing with other employees and can’t trust anyone? These are characteristics of hyper competitive workplaces that damage employee relationships, impair personal well-being,  and organizational output. Organizational culture is typically created through a top-down process where upper level employees determine the atmosphere. Organizational leaders and managers play a critical role in enforcing collaborative norms.

This post will provide lessons on how to create a productive and functional organizational culture. We cover four lessons:

  1. Learn characteristics of hyper competitive workplaces
  2. Adopt organizational norms that counter hyper competitive workplaces
  3. Focus on your framing
  4. How to avoid negative and promote productive self-fulfilling prophecies

As always, our team of psychology researchers reviewed hundreds of peer reviewed journal articles from social, cognitive, clinical, and industrial organizational psychology to determine effective strategies for creating a healthy, collaborative organizational culture.


1. Learn characteristics of hyper competitive workplaces

Hyper competitive workplaces lead to poor outcomes for individual employees and the organization as a whole.

Workplaces characterized by hyper competitive characteristics are associated with high burnout rates of employees, dysfunctional leadership and organizational cultures, as well as poor well-being among individual employees. 

Recently, several Silicon Valley organizations have been under fire for hyper competitive organizational cultures that are created by corporate values that encourage ruthless competition among employees and taking shortcuts in order to “win.”

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Wall Street organizations have also been taking heat for workplace practices that include excessively long hours, lack of oversight, and high levels of aggression. Due to these organizational norms, this sector has become notorious for white collar crime.

This post aims to address the root cause of these hyper competitive workplaces to facilitate collaborative organizational cultures that benefit individual employees and the organization.

There are four main characteristics of hyper competitive workplaces that employees are encouraged to embody:

  1. Show no weakness
    • Admits to no mistakes
    • Expresses no “soft emotions” like sadness or anxiety
    • Disparage anything perceived as feminine
  2. Strength and stamina 
    • Constantly trying to showcase endurance
    • Work excessively long hours
    • No breaks
  3. Put work first
    • Never let anything interfere with work such as family obligations
  4. Dog eat Dog
    • No one can be trusted
    • Everyone is in competition
    • Winners dominate and losers are exploited

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Workplaces dominated by these “competitive contests” exacerbate intergroup differences and promote harassment and bullying. These contests cultivate interpersonal zero-sum thinking such that people see the workplace as filled with only winners and losers. When someone else succeeds, this inherently is a threat.

More broadly, these workplaces also foster intergroup zero-sum thinking where people view the increasing presence of an outgroup in the workplace as threat to their social groups’ status (e.g., more women in the workplace means less jobs for men).

Zero-sum thinking not only represents a logical fallacy (e.g., there is not a fixed number of jobs in an economic system), but it creates combative organizational cultures that impair diversity and inclusion initiatives. In fact, when organizations try to implement diversity training among hyper-competitive workplaces it is often ineffective and can backfire.

Before we discuss how to promote adaptive and functional organizational cultures, let’s first learn specific features of hyper-competitive workplaces that promote maladaptive organizational norms.

These organizational cultures are more likely to have…

  • A toxic supervisor:
    • Subordinates are exploited or used as scapegoats to blame organizational failures on
    • Claims success of subordinates and sees talented subordinates as threats

Toxic supervisors create organizational cultures where employees also have poor relations with one another and low job satisfaction.

  • Poor employee relationships and workplace habits…
    • Employees attempt to undermine each other
    • Bullying
    • People fear using family leave policies
    • Harassment toward historically disadvantaged groups and men with non-traditional identities (e.g., perceived as feminine)
    • Extreme risk-taking (more likely to occur in finance or blue collar jobs)

Lower-level employees are often stuck reproducing unhealthy workplace norms, because they lack control to change the workplace environment. It is up to workplace leadership to set the tone for an organizational culture.


2. Adopt organizational norms that counter hyper competitive workplaces

Organizational culture is created through upper-level employees (management) and trickles down to lower-level employees. Managers need to cultivate an environment of trust and cooperation through enforcing these norms.

1. Let employees show “soft emotions.”

  • Let employees express worry, stress, and anxiety
  • Employees should feel free to admit to mistakes and discuss their problems

2. Make sure employees take breaks throughout the day. No one accomplishes their best work without being able to take breaks.

  • Even short, ten-minute breaks can be very beneficial for optimal functioning.

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3. Make sure employees take advantage of work-life balance policies.

  • Even if a workplace offers maternity and paternity leave, this doesn’t mean employees will use these policies. Encourage these policies and make sure employees know that they will not be punished if they take them.
  • The same applies for other types of work-life balance policies like sick leave or vacation days. Ensure employees do not fear retaliation for taking care of personal problems or taking a well-earned vacation.

4. Create a collaborative workplace. Employees should not feel like the only way to get ahead is by sabotaging other employees.

  • When you create work teams, don’t pit the employees in direct competition with one another. Highlight how cooperation leads to the best performance and highest productivity.
  • Employees should be allowed to openly discuss workplace practices and pose questions.
  • Encourage open channels of communication among employees. Supportive conversations between employees is important for a healthy workplace. Supportive conversations include:
    • Transfer of professional knowledge
    • Help with conflict resolution
    • Emotional support and reassurance
    • Recognition of each other’s professional experiences and expertise

Cultures of collaboration are necessary for social intellectual growth. However, collaboration norms start with you (the manager). If employees see you undermining employees, lying, and exploiting others, your employees will follow suit. You set the stage for organizational culture.


3. Focus on your framing to improve organizational culture

Framing refers to the language you use surrounding your workplace decisions or organizational decisions. You, as a manager or leader in the workplace, are constantly sending messages to your employees. The content and tone of these messages impacts organizational culture.

Organizational framing seems minor, but is critical to create a supportive, collaborative, and non-threatening work environment. The main goal with framing is to reduce zero-sum thinking among employees.

Workplaces that highlight organizational hiring quotas are often threatening to employees and can cause backlash. People see this as a threat to their social group and employees can actually reduce their endorsement of workplace equality norms. Even the sheer presence of employees from outgroups in the workplace can be threatening. 

To be clear, we are not suggesting to stop hiring employees from historically disadvantaged social groups, but how you frame your policies and decisions to employees matters.

Try using win-win language instead of talking about supporting historically disadvantaged social groups for legal or arbitrary reasons.

Discuss how hiring people from all different types of backgrounds will benefit all employees. For example, highlight how:

  • You hire the most qualified employees regardless of their background or social identities.
    • You never want your employees to think you hired someone just because they come from a disadvantaged background or social group. This creates combative workplaces.
  • Diversity of backgrounds and social groups improves:
    • Intellectual performance of teams as a whole 
    • Improves productivity of all employees
    • Increases profits and organizational output

As we discussed in when Diversity and Inclusion thrives, once you hire a diverse set of employees, specific measures should be taken to ensure cohesive workplace relations. However, the first step is to focus on your messaging.

In general, always use language that suggests different policies and decisions benefit everyone in the organization.


4. How to avoid negative and promote productive self-fulfilling prophecies

Self-fulfilling prophecies (the Pygmalion effect) refer to how our pre-existing beliefs can shape our behavior and cause interactions that confirm our beliefs. This process occurs because our expectations inform how we treat people and people respond based on that treatment. This psychological process is not always in our conscious awareness.

Let’s say you assume someone lacks competence with technology, so you don’t assign any projects or tasks to that person that involves more advanced technology. This prevents them from being able to prove your pre-existing belief wrong, and you will likely keep thinking your original expectation was correct, and this cycle will continue.

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Negative self-fulfilling prophecies can be damaging in the workplace, because it can lead to poor working relationships and poor employee performance.

However, we are going to teach you how to channel self-fulfilling prophecies in the workplace for good. Take the technology example. If you flip it in reverse, and change your preexisting beliefs to high (instead of low) expectations about your employees, this can bring about enhanced workplace performances, increased employee self-efficacy, increased motivation and more productivity.

Steps for productive workplace self-fulfilling prophecies for managers:

Step 1. It all starts with what you believe about yourself. You need to trust in your abilities to hire good employees, train them properly, and motivate them. Confidence is key.

Step 2. Communicate clear expectations to your employees. They need to understand what is expected of them and ways to succeed in the workplace.

  • While you are communicating these expectations, instead of conveying punitive measures if the expectations aren’t met, stress that you know the employees are capable of meeting these expectations. Ensure them that you believe in their abilities and future success.

Step 3. Set challenging goals, but don’t set impossible goals that need to be met too fast. Once your employees reach success, raise the bar slightly each time but not too fast! Don’t set your employees up for failure.

Step 4. You need to apply these steps to all of your employees. Employees can pick up on subtle differences in treatment and this affects their performance. Step 4 may be easier said than done, because we often are not even consciously aware of our own biases.

See the post on implicit bias to start understanding your hidden biases. You first need to recognize your biases to be able to treat people without bias. That’s right. Reflect and acknowledge your personal biases. Then act in accordance with values of workplace equity, because that’s what your employees need to succeed. 

If employees notice that you are favoring other employees, this can result in performance detriments, because they can tell you have lower expectations for them. Keep your expectations high and consistent. Continuously reinforce these notions to each of your employees. You’ll be surprised what people can accomplish given the right circumstances.

In sum, managers and upper-level employees can create an organizational culture of high-expectations without cultivating a cutthroat environment.


Recap of how to increase collaboration in your organizational culture

Hyper-competitive workplaces impair employee relationships, well-being, and performance. In addition, they can exacerbate intergroup differences such that people from different social groups perceive each other as threats. Instead of fostering maladaptive organizational cultures, follow these tips to promote collaboration and cooperation in your workplace.

  1. Learn characteristics of hyper competitive workplaces
    • There are four main characteristics of hyper competitive workplaces: show no weakness, strength and stamina, put work first and dog eat dog. 
    • These organizational cultures usually have a toxic leader that creates workplace norms where employees undermine each other and lack trust.
  2. Adopt organizational norms that counter hyper competitive workplaces
    • Let employees show “soft” emotions, make sure employees take breaks throughout the day and take advantage of work-life balance policies. 
    • Work on creating a collaborative organizational culture through promoting supportive channels of communication among employees.
  3. Focus on your framing
    • Use “win-win” language when discussing organizational policies and your hiring decisions. 
  4. How to avoid negative and promote productive self-fulfilling prophecies 
    • Trust in your abilities to hire good employees, train them properly, and motivate them. Communicate clear expectations to your employees. Set challenging but attainable goals. Apply these high expectations to all of your employees.