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Safety, game theory and performance

One of the areas that we are all seeking is to live and work in a place where we fit.

A characteristic of such a place is great culture.

But what does that mean?

Daniel Coyle has addressed this issue in his new book, The Culture Code.

book cover The Culture Code

A critical characteristic is safety. This is an interesting area to explore.

As I have previously blogged, Google found that a high degree of psychological safety is the difference maker in separating team performance. Their best teams only differed from their other teams in their perception of greater psychological safety.

Importantly, Abraham Maslow described safety as a foundational human need in his psychological hierarchy and I believe this is an underappreciated and highly important to consider in a live/work environment. 

Maslow Pyramid

Safety allows us to be authentic; to be embraced for who we are; to disagree; to be wrong; and to feel loved.

Safety also allows us to move from fear as a motivation and scarcity as mindset to one of love and abundance.

Psychological safety is a powerful element personally and organizationally of great culture, great performance and fulfillment.

Why then do many of our environments at work and play focus on top-down demands of teams that is driven by win-lose, competition, quantitative metrics and artificial listings and rankings?

We see it all the time.

Competition versus cooperation. Structure versus network. Protecting and owning versus sharing. Individual versus team. Control versus trust.

Fear versus love.

Scarcity versus abundance.

Separation versus wholeness.

Remember, the best outcomes are based on cooperation and collaboration.

The prisoner’s dilemma focuses on a famous game theory problem that occurs in microeconomics, friendships, organizational behavior and success.

The prisoner’s dilemma is a fictional scenario where two people who don’t know each other well are simultaneously arrested for a crime and immediately separated.

The police question both and offer each the opportunity to testify against the other, which sets one of them free, while sentencing the other to jail for 10 years.

If both testify on each other, they both get five years in jail. If neither testifies, they will both get 6 months in jail.

The best solution is “tit for tat.”

The tit for tat strategy is that each partner mirrors the approach taken by the previous individual. Collaboration works best between the prisoners in tit for tat (neither testifies against the other) and has the best outcome of each getting six months in jail.

If both compete -- both testify against each other -- they each get the intermediate outcome, five years in jail.

If one competes and one collaborates, the competitor wins and gets off free.

This strategy is also effective for microeconomics, sports or friendship. It illustrates the benefit of trust, great networks and shared purpose -- collaboration.

To realize this opportunity, we need to feel safe in our environments, with our teams, and in our lives.

The foundational human element of safety is a critical component of great culture, great organizations and great leadership.

While many business philosophies suggest the need to tightly manage performance and reduce assessments to quantitative charts, lists and rankings, we know from our own experiences that cognitive workers seek autonomy, mastery and purpose as their driving motivations.

Safety is the foundation for shared trust and shared purpose, which I will blog about next time.

I love the quote that is attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson - What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.

Seeing what is within other people, like others see within us, elevate us to extraordinary performance and audacious goals by creating individual and organizational safety.

Almost heaven.