Pitfalls of Collaboration? Self-Reliance in a Team Structure

Dr. Ainslie Schultz, assistant professor of marketing, joined the Providence College Department of Marketing faculty in 2017 after earning her doctorate from the University of Arizona. A member of the Association for Consumer Research and the Society for Consumer Psychology, Schultz is an active scholar in a number of marketing areas.

Recently, a paper she co-authored, “Does Pulling Together Lead to Falling Apart? The Self-Regulatory Consequences of Cooperative Orientations for the Self-Reliant,” (Journal of Business Research) focused on organizational behavior and what happens when self-reliant individuals find themselves in collaborative environments. Below are her thoughts on the subject and why she believes organizations can benefit from shifting how they reward employees.

What about this topic interests you?

When I started working as an analyst, I began to notice that several high achievers felt like they could rely on themselves, or they exhibited what in psychology research is referred to as “self-reliant behavior” and did not like to cooperate. They dreaded teamwork, often because they felt like the group slowed them down. However, from what we know from research on cooperation, the group’s performance often exceeds that of the individual in organizations, so these self-reliant individuals’ views probably were not based in reality.

Why are your findings useful to different organizations?

Disproportionately, business leaders tend to have higher levels of self-reliance than the normal population. That’s because many successful individuals, such as top company employees, often attribute their personal success to themselves and their hard work. To them, their achievements are often a result from individual efforts in training and practice or long days and sleepless nights laboring in solitude over their work. However, when self-reliant individuals are rewarded for achievements accomplished through their individual efforts, these rewards often come in the form of a promotion, where they must manage others and oversee or organize other’s work. Essentially, the further up the corporate ladder self-reliant individuals climb, the more they must put aside their “selfish interests” and navigate the opinions, capabilities, and motivations of others in order to achieve success.

The problem comes in that this behavior is particularly draining for these individuals. While we do not see evidence that these individuals are less effective at cooperating, we do find many other negative effects that can come from placing self-reliant individuals in cooperative settings. Specifically, we see that while cooperating with others, self-reliant individuals are much more likely to engage in unethical behavior or to quit the next task early. Perhaps, for this reason, it is not surprising that Michael Jordan once said, “To be successful you have to be selfish, or else you never achieve. And once you get to your highest level, then you have to be unselfish.”

Self-reliance is probably a point of pride for some people and could be celebrated as something aspirational. How do we shift that mindset?

I think a huge problem exists in the way we reward behavior in Western society. Individual efforts, as opposed to collective efforts, are most frequently rewarded in Western culture, and this reward structure reinforces self-reliant behavior. Children learn at a young age that they must rely on themselves to get good jobs out of school. Students who perform well individually (e.g., get high GPAs and test scores) get into the best colleges and typically enter prestigious corporate settings. However, more recently, companies such as Google and Apple have begun to emphasize cooperative skills as an important interview criterion. Increasingly, the work of teams as opposed to individuals is responsible for the business and technological breakthroughs we see today. My guess is that in the future we will see a greater emphasis on cooperation as opposed to individual achievement.

You and your co-authors highlight links between self-control and self-reliant people working in group situations. Is that a necessary trait for success in this framework?

Yes, according to our research, self-control is a necessary criterion for protecting self-reliant individuals from feeling drained following cooperation. However, on a positive note, research by Roy F. Baumeister finds that like a muscle, individuals can exercise self-control to improve their self-control “muscle” over time. And in fact, most exercises of self-control can build the self-control “muscle,” such as resisting the urge to binge watch Netflix or saying no to a piece of cake when you crave something sweet. According to his theory, with each resistance to our impulses, we subsequently get better at resisting the next urge. Thus, we might expect that with each act of cooperation, self-reliant individuals could build their self-control muscle and better defend themselves from the fatigue they feel from cooperation. However, since our research is the first to find that self-reliance makes cooperation exhausting, we do not know whether this theory extends to cooperation. But, I would speculate this to be the case. Such findings would suggest that self-reliant individuals could become better cooperators with time and practice.

Generally speaking, can “completely” self-reliant people be fully realized team players in the workforce?

Yes, if they can exert enough self-control to protect themselves as they navigate the opinions and capabilities of others in the team. Unfortunately, many of us do not have the stamina to always exert self-control. The results of our research suggest that it may be important to develop or enhance self-control for self-reliant individuals who cooperate. Future research might explore the use of different heuristics/ rules of thumb to ease decision making following cooperation when one feels fatigued, as well as appropriate compensation or incentive models at the individual and team levels.

This study and its findings reveal some interesting food for thought. Where do you see potential impact? How could you see this being used?

I think the issue begins with the way we reward individual behavior. Currently, we reward individual achievement too frequently and neglect softer skills that are equally as important or, perhaps, even more important. By measuring and rewarding team behaviors, we can likely create an environment where more people enjoy cooperating as opposed to seeing cooperation as a necessary and perhaps inefficient evil.