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Tech#06: Effective team member personal co-operation strategies

Natures most effective co-operation strategy

Most team members don’t have a practical technique for what they do when another team member lets them down. 'Win – win' is an outcome not an effective collaboration strategy.

Without a personal collaboration strategy many team members inevitably feel taken advantage off by others and simply “silently disengage” from the team in terms of their commitment and participation.

This technique uses nature’s most effective collaboration strategy “Tit for Tat”.

Natures most effective co-operation strategy

Research has discovered that many species in nature use a surprising strategy for cooperation known as TIT FOR TAT (TFT).

The rules of TFT are very simple:

1. Never be the first to defect

2. Retaliate only after your partner has defected

3. Be prepared to forgive after carrying out just one act of retaliation

It appears this strategy is highly popular in nature even in situations where the individuals are only able to recognise their species rather than specific individuals.

Sticklebacks play TIT FOR TAT

One of the best empirical tests of TFT in nature is Milinski's laboratory experiments with stickleback fish in 1987 [1] During the early stages of an attack by a stalking pike, some sticklebacks may leave their shoal to approach the predator, for a 'predator inspection visit'.

They do this as a small group so that they can get very close and if the pike turns on them the fact they are in a group is confusing to it and increases all their chances of escape.

Milinski gave sticklebacks the chance to alter their behaviour according to that of an imaginary companion fish - their reflection in a mirror.

The mirror could be angled to give the illusion of a companion keeping up (co-operating) or lagging behind (defecting).

In the experiment the stickleback followed the rules of TFT exactly - for example those fish with co-operating mirrors went closer to the predator and stayed there longer than the fish with defecting mirrors.

Also the fish would usually forgive their cowardly companions up to a point and approach the predator again and again.

Some weaknesses in TFT Very recent research [2] has revealed some weaknesses in TFT - the biggest of which is that it the two players can become locked into a spiral of retaliation.

The problem is this can happen by accident such as errors in communication or interpretation but it may be impossible to break out of the cycle.

Consequently another strategy WIN STAY- LOSE SHIFT (WSLS) (“if its working keep doing it if its not change it”) may be better in certain situations such as those with error-prone communications environments.

Benefits of Rule to Nature

TIT FOR TAT (and other biologically-based strategies such as WIN STAY LOSE SHIFT) provides the most effective long-term cooperation strategies for many species in nature. In the longer term cooperation is better for the whole community but is open to abuse by individual opportunists.

TFT allows for cooperation to be achieved but not at the expense of being exploited through the retaliation and forgiveness responses which enable conflicting parties to then recover the co-operation after a breakdown.

Application of Rule to Organisational Teams

Recent research has shown that TIT FOR TAT is also the best long-term strategy for human co-operation [3].

Human teams and their members often say that they are committed to "playing Win-Win" which is great! But what does this actually mean?

I propose that the best strategy for achieving Win-Win is not Win-Win but in fact TIT FOR TAT!

Team members who say they are playing ‘win-win’ are generally referring to one of two very different personal collaboration strategies:

Mr Nice Guy “I will assume you are cooperating with me until it is proven you are not - then I won’t work with you again”.

In this situation you can be easily taken advantage off at which point you are be too resentful to try and put it right. Relationships that start in this kind of naivety generally end in tears!

Mr Stand-off

“I will assume you are not cooperating until it is proven you are - and if it is not conclusively proven after a certain time I will assume (privately) you are not a good partner”.

Relationships which start in this kind of distrust usually become self-fulfilling prophecies - start cautiously and you won’t be disappointed!

Win-Win is a state not a strategy

So Win-Win is actually a highly desirable outcome/state but is itself not the best strategy for getting there because Win-Win (in both forms above) has no means of checking a non-cooperating partner and then recovering Team members need practical personal collaboration strategies such as TFT based on the three simple principles:

1. Never be the first to defect

2. Retaliate only after your partner has defected

3. Be prepared to forgive after carrying out just one act of retaliation

The other key point is to make it clear to all your team members that these are the rules you go by - secret TFT does not work!

Biological research also shows that a "cluster" of TFT players will grow and eventually convert other non-cooperative players to TFT.

However it also shows that if more than three quarters of a population are using non-cooperative strategies then the team is beyond cooperation and is destined to stay in destructive behaviour and its consequences.

Benefits of Rule to Organisational Teams

Viable natural personal co-operation strategies such as TIT FOR TAT keep the team together to create the environment for a Win-Win state to emerge in the team.

Absence of such strategies creates distrust which results in a huge amount of waste such as:

  • people checking up on each other
  • team members falling out
  • people playing politics
  • members raising personality issues with the leader rather than the offending person
  • email wars
  • team cliques

Consistent use of TFT in a team by its members can avoid all this.


1. Meredith, C., 1998. "The Story of Tit for Tat", Article for Australian Broadcasting Corporation, ABC Online, http://www.abc.net.au/science/slab/tittat/story.htm#tittat

2. Nowak, M., 2005. "Why we cooperate", Webcast for Royal Society, London http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/page.asp?id=3112

3. Axelrod, R., 1990. "The Evolution of Cooperation", Penguin


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