Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Prisoner’s Dilemma, Part 4

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I’ve spent the last few posts talking about the Prisoner’s Dilemma, where two individuals must decide whether or not to cooperate. There’s a harsh penalty for having one’s trust violated, so the most risk-averse strategy is to violate the other player’s trust. RobertAxelrod’s analysis gives us a number of results that we can use both in the realm of improv and in the realm of business. He enumerated these five principles in The Evolution of Cooperation:

  • Enlarge the shadow of the future
  • Change the payoffs
  • Teach people to care about each other
  • Teach reciprocity
  • Improve negotiation abilities

Enlarging the shadow of the future simply means taking a long view of your interactions. When you form an improvisational comedy group, you should plan to have many performances over a number of months or years. This sort of ongoing interaction, like any other relationship, requires nurturing and mutual trust. Just like saving for retirement, the more you set aside in terms of money or trust at the start, the higher your return and, as the years go by, the interest accumulates. The same principle holds for business interactions. Americans on the West Coast tend to change jobs a lot more often than folks on the East Coast, but many of us stay within the same industry and interact with our colleagues from previous jobs frequently. Within a company, you’ll find that fostering a spirit of cooperation on your team will help you generate better results. Hopefully that conclusion won’t be too surprising.

The next question is how to reward different behaviors. In the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma payoff matrix, the only logical choice is to defect. Doing so limits the damage that would be caused by trusting another individual whose rational calculus would push them to defect. In business, anyone who sees their business as a series of one-time relationships will not be all that keen on building a trusting relationship with their business partners. In the entertainment industry, it said that you haven’t really sold someone until you’ve done business with them twice. If they’re not willing to rehire you, it means that they don’t trust you based on their experience with you.

Teaching people to care about each other can be tricky, particularly if you have individuals who are not prone to trusting relationships with others. Sociopaths, who don’t empathize with other individuals at all, are a particular problem. I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t tell you how to deal with them, but there are a number of online resources that you can use to see where to go and what to do. For individuals who do have feelings toward others, you can use teambuilding exercise rewards and the warm afterglow of successful shows or projects to develop a sense of camaraderie.

In the improv world, in which interactions in local groups are reasonably equal, you don’t often have that much trouble with these relationships. Yes, every so often members of the group will disagree intensely, but if everything is in place and the relationship is solid, it’s likely that you will get through the difficulties. In a business in which promotions, internal awards, and raises are at issue, the stakes are quite a bit higher. Managers need to keep everyone’s wants, needs, and desires in mind as they manage their projects.

One of the best ways to ensure people are satisfied is to give them work they care about and reward them for doing good jobs. The nature of those rewards will vary based on your business and the resources available to you, but rewards and recognition, even if only at the personal level, go a long way toward making those relationships more solid.

Axelrod also recommends that you learn to teach reciprocity. A willingness to respond to offers of cooperation allows teams to make much more progress than a loose collection of individuals would be able to. The form that reciprocity takes depends upon your organization. For businesses, providing a bit of after-hours help for others on their part of a project after they have done the same for you is a perfect example. In the improv world, we can try to “set up players for the slam.” Just as volleyball players run through the bump, set, spike sequence to go from defense to offense, improvisers can do their fellow players a favor by giving them straight lines, by allowing them to be the focus of the scene, and by staying off the stage when their presence is not strictly necessary. All these actions are judgment calls that improve with experience, but managers can improve their odds, both in the performance and business worlds, by bringing on individuals who are predisposed toward these behaviors.

Finally, you should improve your negotiation skills. Negotiation is the art of the compromise, and there are very few solutions that will meet everyone’s wants and desires. Some folks have to compromise, some more than others, and good leaders and team members will find ways to negotiate for what they feel is necessary and compromise when it’s called for.

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