Leadership Skills: The Tragedy of the Commons

In my last post, I looked at “reward reversal,” a social trap that’s easy for us to fall into.

Now let’s look at social traps that develop when we do rational things — as individuals– that harm the group.

The social trap called “the missing hero” (What is Leadership? It’s Being A “Present” Hero) is a clear illustration of the cost of not investing an extra few minutes of one’s personal time to save everyone else from wasting their time and/or resources.

I marvel every time at my friend John, who’s prone to pick up trash as we walk together. I see the same trash John sees but I ignore it, unconsciously assuming, “It’s not my trash.” John is such a present hero to me.

Compromising quickly to end an anxious negotiation (the subject of another recent post) is a social trap in which we actually collude — a form of harmful collaboration — with another to trap both of us.

What’s the Tragedy?

The “tragedy of the commons” is a well-studied social trap that can occur when resources are shared by a group.

The “tragedy” is that without controls of some sort, any — and every — individual can take or use more than their share of a shared resource, thus depleting the common resource.

The first researcher to describe the “tragedy of the commons” studied shared grazing land for cattle (see Wikipedia). He documented what happened as each rancher added to his herd (in order to compete more effectively in the marketplace) until the shared grazing land, i.e., the commons, was depleted by overgrazing.

The tragedy is that in situations in which any individual can take advantage, every individual often does. Why? Because it’s the individually rational thing to do.

You know the arguments:

  • “Since it’s not tied down, I can take it,”
  • “It doesn’t have anyone’s name on it,”
  • “Besides, everyone else is doing it,” and
  • “Why should I be the only chump?”

The “tragedy of the commons” explains some of the logical fear we have of participating on teams.

Effective teamwork requires us to trust that no other member will defect on the “commons” and run off with the ideas and work we’re investing, or the rewards we’re expecting to share.

The sad thing is, if fear creeps into our heads, we’re likely to defect first, thus causing the tragedy we’re afraid might happen.

How to Avoid the Tragedy

One rational approach to containing the tragedy of the commons is legislated controls. Fishing enthusiasts pay for fishing licenses and agree to “limits” for this reason. Legal limits protect the shared resource and the fees pay for fish services.

Another type of control is hoarding the resource, which we enact by parsing the “commons” and dividing it for individual use. In organizations, we do this through distributing authority and through the annual budget process.

It’s commonplace these days in city neighborhoods, too. When I was a boy, all the kids ran and played across all of the backyards on our block. Today, all of those houses have privacy fences (and the neighborhood does not look nearly as friendly, inviting, and open  as it once did.

So how can we create the kinds of controls in teams that will facilitate the real sharing of shared resources? Here are three places of high leverage:

  1. Aligning and linking individuals’ interests to team interests leaves little incentive to abuse a shared resource.
  2. Agreements that maintain the integrity of the team provide both a point of reference in conflict and a sense of comfort in daily interaction.
  3. Team rituals and practices that bond teammates reinforce individuals’ natural desires to enjoy mutual responsibility and loyalty in group action.

Get Started With This Week’s 5-Minute Stretch

Think about the last time you were affected by someone taking more than their fair share or by the thought that someone would take more than their fair share.

What did you do? What might you do differently by daring to speak up for the sanctity of the “commons?”

Leaders and coaches: Get Christopher’s best team building and leadership strategies collected over two-plus decades of solving teamwork problems for smart people. Attend the acclaimed Creating Results-Based Teams workshop, or get this FREE Special Report while it lasts: The Five Flawless Steps to Building a Strong Executive Leadership Team.

Christopher Avery, PhD, is a recognized authority on how individual and shared responsibility works in the mind and an advisor to leaders worldwide.

Posted in Collaboration, Leadership on 02/20/2013 01:05 am
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