Cooperation and the Team Problem
| Nicolai Foss |
Alchian and Demsetz’s famous 1972 paper on the team problem and how resolving that problem may call for the “classical capitalist firm” is one of my teaching favorites. Students like the stark, stylized reasoning in the paper, and the team problem is a great way to introduce agency theory, among other things, because it so directly links to what is usually the only piece of game theory they know, namely the PD game.
However, I often experience that some students (particularly those who are following an OB or HRM class) are worried about the reasoning in Alchian and Demsetz, and are not convinced by the argument that it is basically counterfactual (provided they understand this point). I usually also explain that experimental evidence from the public goods literature suggests that cooperativeness declines over time (e.g., here) unless cooperation is backed up by various flanking arrangements (a recent Nobel can now be invoked in support of this).
A recent experimental paper, “Not just hot air: normative codes of conduct induce cooperative behavior,” — written by a German team (Thomas Lauer, Bettina Rockenbach, and Peter Walgenbach), and published in the newly founded Review of Managerial Science — suggests that the verbal framing of a work environment with cooperative connotations may go a long way towards inducing cooperativeness in team settings. In their experiments, the authors implement five “treatments” that differ only in terms of the framing, specifically in the extent to which reference is made to a cooperative firm context.
The basic experimental setup is team production with teams of four members that each have to make decisions on whether to invest or not in a team project. Each unit invested generates a benefit of 1.6 units for the team — but those benefits are divided equally among all team members. In this setting, changes in framing dramatically influence outcomes. I recommend the paper as a fascinating example of the emerging intersection of the economics of the firm, OB, and experimental methods.