Leadership Cancers #1: Independence, The Prisoner’s Dilemma, and the Death of Cooperation

by Gary Monti on March 16, 2010

When does independence promote less-than-optimal performance? When is it a force tearing the project apart? In this first of six blogs on leadership cancers we will look at the potential corrosive effect independence can have on your organization and projects leading to sub-optimal performance if not failure. It will be done through game theory and The Prisoner’s Dilemma. Finally, we’ll take a look a possible solution to the situation.


We all start life dependent upon our parents and others to be fed, clothe, nurture, and teach us. As we mature there is movement towards self-reliance, i.e., independence. Based on self-interests we can take action and control our lives. Teams can be joined for accomplishing tasks that go beyond what an individual can perform. This sounds sufficient for success. But is it?

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

When teams are formed based solely on independence a problem arises. Once a member’s self-interest fails to be met they can pull out of the relationship with potentially devastating consequences. When other team members see this behavior then they may pull out as well. Let’s look at a typical example.

Imagine a 2-person design team, John and Mary. John is extremely good at designing for performance but the product is a nightmare to maintain. Mary is just the opposite. Her designs are easily maintained but they don’t have the performance of John’s.  Each can do the entire design but lack efficiency when it comes to their weak spot. John is overly sensitive and Mary is rude. They both want to be seen as superior and never hesitate to stick it to the other. Whenever one appears to cooperate the other takes advantage and tries to put in fewer hours. There is no backup for either of them and management is afraid of losing either but will draw the line at flat out refusal to work and will withhold any bonuses. The grid below shows the four possibilities in terms of effort-hours expended. If they both cooperated the total hours would be 60 (blue). With both being non-cooperation it shoots up to 100. If either pulls out completely the other has to put in 150 hours. The job ends up taking 100 hours (red) because both will be selfish at the first sign of cooperation by the other.

John Selfish John Cooperates
Mary Selfish 50,50 0,150
Mary Cooperates 150,0 30,30

In game theory this is called The Prisoner’s Dilemma. Both could cooperate and put in fewer hours overall but that would require being empathetic and trusting. Instead, at the first sign of seeing the other cooperate, the one will try to take advantage and be selfish. With them both being selfish the job gets done but at great inefficiency.

A Possible Solution

One approach is asking them to cooperate, pointing out the value to the organization and they could be more productive. That is unrealistic since it expects altruism from two uncooperative people. A more realistic approach and one that works well in a complex situation is a joint evaluation. Their bonuses, profit sharing, etc., rises or falls with team performance. This returns power to the leader. Mary and John can do as they like and they will be rewarded accordingly. There are risks associated with this approach. However, if costs are outstripping benefits then it is worth considering.

If you find this topic as fascinating as I do and would like to delve deeper into game theory and its use in leadership send me an e-mail at gwmonti@mac.com or visit www.ctrchg.com.

Gary Monti PMI presentation croppedThrough his firm, Center for Managing Change, Gary Monti has over 30 years experience providing change- and project management services internationally. He works at the nexus between strategy, business case, project-, process-, and people management. Service modalities include consulting, teaching, mentoring, and speaking. Credentials include PMP number 14 (Project Management Institute®), Myers-Briggs Type Indicator certification, and accreditation in the Cynefin methodology. Gary can be reached at gwmonti@mac.com or through Twitter at @garymonti

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