Most who are familiar with the work of Morton Deutsch have read about his classic studies on cooperation and completion in teams. Deutsch, now professor emeritus at Teachers College, Columbia University, has devoted his life to grounding “big ideas” in conflict into fundamental and empirically sound theories and applications. Deutsch is perhaps best known in the world of conflict for his “Theory of Cooperation and Competition.” In short, this theory asserts that cooperation and competition are best understood as different types of interdependence between individuals in a team that is either positive (both parties win together) or negative (when one party wins the other loses). This is determined by the tasks, goals, rewards, and possible outcomes of the interdependence between individuals (will each person be rewarded for success or only a few?), and the actions of each individual in the team.
Deutsch’s study with MIT students provided strong evidence for this theory. He found that individuals rewarded cooperatively feel that the others’ success is important to their own success, believe that other members can step in to help with tasks they are responsible for (in other words the individual does not feel alone in achieving their goals), feel more positively about the successful actions of others, and are more likely to be helpful and to do what is asked of them by other group members. In this study, the groups composed of individuals with cooperative goals (in contrast to competitive goals) experienced more coordination of efforts, increased diversity of individual contributions, and more division of responsibilities. There was more pressure to achieve, higher attentiveness to other members, more productive communication between members, greater orderliness and productivity, and more positive attitudes towards other group members and the groups’ functioning as a whole.
Over 60 years later, the influence of Deutsch’s work cannot be denied. Unfortunately, at the same time we are still faced with the commonly held belief that breeding competition in organizations and teams is the best way to maximize productivity. The challenge for managers and consultants is to take Deutsch’s theory and research to heart by confronting this basic assumption in organizations and highlighting the multiple direct and indirect benefits of creating and facilitating cooperative interdependence in teams.
Deutsch, M. (1949b). An experimental study of the effects of coop- eration and competition upon group process. Human Relations, 2 (July, 1949b).
Deutsch, M. (2006). Cooperation and competition. In M. Deutsch, P.T. Coleman, & E.C. Marcus (Eds.), The handbook of conflict resolution: Theory and practice (pp. 23-42). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
For a good review of the impact of the theory see:
Johnson, D. W., and Johnson, R. T. (2005). New developments in social interdependence theory. Psychology Monographs, 131(4), 285-358.