How to Avoid the Prisoner’s Dilemma Business Trap

The prisoner’s dilemma is a simple principle that explains a very inconvenient paradox. That being, when two or more people are in competition to reach the same goal, instead of working together, they’ll more often make self-serving or sub-optimal choices to their desired end. In other words, they won’t work as a team, attempting to obtain the same result, but rather, as mutual competitors. When this happens, it can easily lead to unhealthy competition, jealousy, infighting, and poor company morale. Fortunately, there are a few effective strategies to cope with such situations.

What Causes the Prisoner’s Dilemma in Business

Named for a scenario to explain why prisoners do not routinely rise up against the guards of a penitentiary, the prisoner’s dilemma attempts to define why it is that inmates don’t rally together to overtake the facility in order to ultimately escape. (After all, they greatly outnumber the guards and other staff.)
…a teaming mindset must be adopted on purpose. Team leaders must paint success in the team as something shared and expansive. Because seeing success this way is rarely spontaneous, leaders have to go out of their way to convey — to sell, really — the upside of collaborative work. The message must be that success can be greater and more exciting when people work together. When this is done well, team members tend to focus more on the work than on themselves. They also focus on what the work means for the company’s value proposition — for their customers. —Harvard Business Review
The reason behind it is simple — while everyone might be ostensibly working toward the same goal, that is taking over and breaking out of the prison, each person will act in their own individual best interest — this ultimately leads to chaos and of course, makes the end goal of escaping nearly impossible.

Effective Strategies for Dealing with the Prisoner’s Dilemma in Business

You might have noticed this dynamic working out among your sales team or any given group of employees. They seem to be in a constant state of competition, even to the point of harming your company’s overall goals. The good news is there are ways to deal with such scenarios, like the following:
  • Encourage healthy discussions. Although some individuals seemingly always do what’s only in their self-interest, very few will continue such behavior if they know that it’s counterproductive to their future. During sales meetings, come up with common strategies that everyone can agree to follow and put everyone on the same path toward your desired goals.
  • Scrutinize potential hires. If someone has a very impressive track record, but hops from one company to another, that’s obviously a red flag. So, listen carefully during the interview process for attitudes that convey job dissatisfaction, unhealthy competition with previous employees/employers, and other negative perspectives and emotions. Such individuals will tell you in not-so-subtle ways that they don’t work well with others.
  • Reward genuine teamwork. Ronald Reagan copied a famous inspirational phrase by repeating this sentiment, “It’s amazing what can be accomplished when nobody cares who gets the credit.” This is very difficult for any group, especially those in a competitive environment. But, if you reward everyone involved for working as a team to reach their goals, you reinforce positive behaviors.
What other suggestions do you have? Please take a moment to comment and share your thoughts and experiences so others can benefit from your unique perspective! Interested in learning more about business? Then just visit Waters Business Consulting Group.

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