Destructive Cooperation

Last week I attended a short workshop. My expectations were more on the curiosity side than anything else. The workshop’s premise was

  • people are happiness seekers
  • people are social
  • people want to be good

That resonated with me well as I strongly believe people are inherently trying their best. Now after an introduction by Niki Harre (University of Auckland) she organised an impromptu role play. There were 3 groups of 4 people and they were asked to come up with ideas for a birthday party for a 5 year old.

Group 1

(A) Okay guys, here’s a brilliant idea. We take them all to the forest, get some gear, built an adventure parcour and let them use it. While they on it we’ll have a BBQ and some beers.

(B) Fantastic idea! I got a rope in my garage and we can put a high rope up between trees!

(C) I love that, too. They can have my chain saw and cut a few branches of. That’ll help with the BBQ, too.

(A) Thanks guys, sounds like a done deal. Let’s get cracking.

Now, I think that’s enough of my recall to paint the idea. This group is totally of the rails. There is no one reminding them, “hey, the little ones are just 5 years old!” This is becoming quickly dangerous or in a business setting unrealistic.

Group 2

(A) Hi people, thanks for coming to plan the party. I think we are going to have a bouncy castle and a sausage sizzle.

(B) Are you nuts! That is the most stupid idea I ever heard.

(C) Absolutely. What are you thinking, a bouncy castle costs far too much.

(D) Probably you are going to suggest a fundraiser. Not with me.

In contrast, you can see what’s happening in this group. A bunch of nay-Sayers that don’t have suggestions of their own. This is the best way to kill any idea or sabotage a creative environment.

Group 3

You can imagine Group 3 being a more harmonious team that actually came up with a workable plan and had fun doing so. It wouldn’t have made an impression without the previous 2 role plays. And in this setting it actually highlighted in less than 10 minutes the impact of supportive and negative influences.


Research has shown that a ratio of

  • 3 negative to 1 supportive response => leads to a low performing team
  • 3 positive to 1 negative response => a standard team environment
  • 5 positive to 1 negative response => a high performance team
  • 11 positive to 1 negative response => unrealistic outcome

This knowledge is very helpful when putting a team together, when facilitating a meeting or workshop, or similar events. Be aware of the desired outcome!

  • negative responses are helpful when they are accompanied by a better suggestion.
  • unconditional positive feedback is great when generating ideas. It’s simply dangerous when implementing ideas.
  • negative responses can shut the idea flow quickly down and stifle collaboration and trust.
  • the right mix of positive and negative responses creates a race car where the team knows where the brakes are.

Have you had any experiences with such environments?

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