Why People Don't Co-operate


A common complaint in workplaces is that people from different parts of the organisation don't cooperate. This very human phenomenon is often expressed as “silo behaviour”, as “knowledge is power” and as “tension between teams”. The behaviour gets in the way in situations such as cross-selling where different products and services could be sold to the same client, cross-functional teamwork where solutions require different groups working together and in mergers and acquisitions where different groups are coming together.

Examples of Frustrations

A client once expressed frustration that there was a lack of cross-selling where clients from one arm of the business (insurance) could be introduced to another arm (financial services) but the insurance staff were not doing so. Another client in aged-care services was finding that the central kitchen service was not delivering a satisfactory food service to their facility. And an individual, a participant on a leadership program, was frustrated with not gaining the information he needed from others to enable him to do his job.  

Human instincts provides a clue to fixing the problem. Information sharing is much more likely to occur once we have formed a relationship. We need to first invest in the relationship. We can’t productively force information exchange in the absence of a trusting relationship. 
Sharing or Secrecy in Lobster Fishing


This was shown in a real-world study of two lobster-fishing communities along the Maine Coast in the United States. In a large community with many strangers, lobstermen were significantly less willing to share the location of rich lobster sites compared to a small community where almost everyone knew each other. If information can be shared amongst a community of lobstermen, as it was in the second community, then there’s hope for us in regular organisations.

The researcher Craig Palmer describes lobstering as a prime example of fierce competition over a limited resource and where the reputation of Maine lobstermen is one of fierce independence and that the “best weapon” in the exploitation of the lobster beds is the careful management of information. There’s a premium on information and on gaining information about others’ success. Maine lobstermen generally go to great lengths to hide the location of lobsters from others. In lobster fishing knowledge is power.

Palmer conducted research into information sharing in two Maine harbours. One of the harbours – he called “Middle Harbor” – is a major fishing port and where the 50 full-time lobstermen (I assume from the way the study is written that they were all men) and 25 part-timers were generally strangers. 

The second harbour – “Southern Harbor” – is a quiet fishing village where most of the lobstermen come from families that have been in the area from its beginning in the 1870s. It’s a close community and the 15 full-time and 13 part-time lobstermen know each other well. 

Palmer worked on a local boat and recorded conversations between lobstermen. A total of 607 conversations were recorded for Middle Harbor (565 radio conversations and 42 face-to-face encounters). A total of 644 conversations were recorded in Southern Harbor (503 radio and 141 face-to-face). Palmer was most interested in conversations that contained information about the location of lobsters, and also whether those conversations include positive information on lobsters. 

Culture of Sharing

“There was a striking difference in the patterns of information sharing in the two harbours.” For Middle Harbor – the community of strangers – the vast majority of conversations revealed a secrecy approach to information sharing. Only 11% of the conversations contained any information on the location of lobsters and only 2.1% contained positive information that would help others with the location of rich pickings. 

This is in contrast to Southern Harbor where 46% of the conversations contained information on the location of lobsters and 11% of the conversations contained positive information. While a number of these conversations were between kin, many were not and many did not involve direct reciprocity. Palmer gives an example of five lobstermen exchanging precise information on extremely productive fishing areas while waiting for the fog to lift. Some of the group of five were not related. 

Most of the open information sharing in Southern Harbor could not be explained by kin relationships nor by anticipated reciprocity. Much could only be explained because of their social connection – they were not strangers. 

(Source: Craig T. Palmer, “Kin-Selection, Reciprocal Altruism, and Information Sharing Among Maine Lobstermen” in Ethology and Sociobiology 12: 221-235 (1991))

Implications for Leaders


Fishing for lobsters off the Maine Coast is perhaps a metaphor for workplaces. There is a premium on information, there is competition for a finite resource and the temptation to secrecy and even deceit exists. Yet in one harbour the culture is to share openly. What can we learn from this study to facilitate cooperation across our organisation?  

The key is that, overwhelmingly, we share with others only after we have a relationship. The relationship drives the sharing, not the other way around. If you want to increase collaboration between your group and another, if you want another group to help you in selling or servicing a client, if you want the other group to support your activities and outputs, then you first need to form a relationship with the other group. You need to know them, you need to know their names and you need to spend time together. 

For the individual frustrated with the lack of information being provided to him, he solved the problem by developing a relationship with key people he relied upon – one of his actions was as straight-forward as visiting them in their location. The aged-care facility invited the kitchen leaders to meet for a menu review and suddenly service levels improved. And the insurance firm realised that insurance sales representatives would not pass on client contacts to the recently acquired financial arm until they knew and trusted their new colleagues. 

It’s only after the other person or group are no longer strangers – they are part of your social network – that information will be shared to your mutual benefit.  


Andrew O’Keeffe


Andrew O'Keeffe is a Human Resources Executive. He has observed bosses for many years, has worked for bosses and has been a boss. As a result of these studies he has written one of the very best leadership books ever, called 'The Boss'and recently released 'Hardwired Humans'.

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