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Cooperation - a human system


Cooperation as a system

Cooperation is not something to believe in like Santa Claus or a religion; it is something that people do. It is much like rowing a boat, individuals may study the technicalities prior to rowing, but in the end, they must get in their boat and row. The successful operation of co-ops relies upon the application of the system of cooperation, as do all forms of mutual action. Cooperation, as a system, includes a set of interdependent practices that work together as a whole; and has the aim of achieving specified outcomes.

The system of cooperation needs to be implemented in its entirety, it is the essential system that supports many of the other systems that are needed in all self-help enterprises; and without it, co-ops are unlikely to achieve anything worthwhile. The prime goal of the system of cooperation is to ensure that people work-together harmoniously to achieve their common goals. Cooperation is based upon reciprocity – that is to say, ‘give and take’. It can never be all ‘give’, or all ‘take’ by any member; otherwise, the result is exploitation, not cooperation. Members who want to enjoy only the benefits of cooperation without contributing to the common cause will inevitably undermine any form of cooperative endeavour.

Obstacles to cooperation

Dishonesty, duplicity and unwarranted selfishness are infectious forms of behaviour that become rife when people are treated unfairly and feel powerless. In contrast, cooperative behaviour can become contagious, where, as members, people feel valued and believe that they are being treated fairly; then they are usually ready to commit to their joint enterprise. The benefits brought by such behavioural changes can help both individuals and their communities, and this result of a ripple-effect can be life-changing for many people. Individuals are often torn between belonging to a community (including their co-op) and maximising their own personal welfare.

For cooperation to work, people need to be adult in their outlook and to be treated as responsible individuals. So, as well as social norms, formal arrangements such as legal contracts, laws, and rules need to be in place to ensure that all members gain fairly from the activities of their enterprise. For instance, the accuracy and fairness of decisions could be ensured by introducing quorum-thresholds, requiring well over a simple majority of voting members to make any significant rule amendments.

What do we mean by culture?

The culture of an organization is revealed in the collective behaviour of the people who are part of the organization, and in the meanings that people attach to their actions. Culture includes its standards of behaviour, its vision of its purpose and function; and in the norms, working language, systems, beliefs, and habits, prevailing throughout the organization.

Creating the right culture

Even where all the other necessary systems are in place, these alone will not guarantee success; this can only come about when the right kind of ‘culture’ prevails within the enterprise. The culture required is one where everybody involved in running the enterprise is committed to achieving their enterprise’s purpose - and serving their members. Sustaining the ‘right kind of culture’ entails using a system that ensures that this happens. In practice, the culture is, a set of shared assumptions that guide interpretation and action in an organization, and these define appropriate behaviour for people involved in the day-to-day activities. The culture affects the way that people interact with each other, including with members, clients, and all other stakeholders.

The right culture doesn’t come about by accident, but by design, this requires that the right practices be in place throughout the organization. The process of embedding the right culture starts when the expected standards of behaviour are set out unambiguously. These standards need to become ‘the norm’ throughout the enterprise and are accepted as the only acceptable standards of behaviour. This includes, for example, that the culture is reflected in recruitment practices, the training and empowerment processes, the rewards system; and provides the basis of relationships with all stakeholders.

Hypocrisy - the great demotivator

Some people in co-ops are fond of talking about ‘values’ and ‘principles’, but this can become extremely damaging to any enterprise if these are shown to be mere platitudes. Values are worthless unless they become the standard for actual behaviour, and if backed up by effective systems built on practices that support the implementation of values in practice. If any policy is to have any meaning, proper sanctions and rewards are needed to support it.

Hypocrisy is the great demotivator because when members’ leaders and senior managers work to double standards, the only result is cynicism. This causes the destruction of goodwill and a lack of commitment to the enterprise, disaffecting members, employees, and other stakeholders alike. Hypocrisy is like a plague, if an organization does not have in place the ‘hygiene factors’ to prevent its spread, it can end up killing it. These factors are a set of practices that ensure that hypocrites are outed as soon as ever they reveal themselves. A code of cultural practice, an agreed acceptable terminology and prohibiting the use of platitudes and meaningless statements, can all help to put an end to hypocrisy.
Barn raising
Working together
climbing a mountain
Mutual action
people planning
Members must be involved in the planning process
gogs of culture
Organizational culture
two-faced person
End hypocrisy

Updated: January 2021 © Edgar Parnell 2021
Cooperatives and all other types of self-help enterprise
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