Understanding the Psychology of Collaboration

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "When" by Daniel H. Pink. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.

Are humans cooperative by nature? Why is collaboration so vital for human societies?

Our survival depends on our ability to collaborate and coordinate with other people. According to Daniel Pink, human collaboration is made possible thanks to the phenomenon of group synchronization or group timing.

Keep reading to learn about the psychology of collaboration, according to Daniel Pink.

The Power of Synchronization

According to Daniel Pink, the author of When, group synchronization, or group timing, is crucial to a functioning society. Think about the level of synchronization it takes to build a house or distribute food to grocery stores: Without synchronization, collaboration breaks down. (Shortform note: Scientists have long been interested in the psychology of collaboration, pondering the question of why humans evolved to collaborate when it seems acting in your own self-interest would be the evolutionary advantage. In The Social Conquest of Earth, Edward Wilson suggests that collaboration isn’t the product of individual selection, as has been previously suggested, but of group selection. While selfish people might have an evolutionary advantage over altruistic people, groups of collaborators will be more successful than any individual selfish person. Wilson goes on to explain how human evolution is the product of the tension between these two seemingly conflicting impulses: self-interest and collaboration.)

According to Daniel Pink, to be successful, groups must synchronize on three different levels: around a leader, within the group, and around feelings of goodwill.

First, people must synchronize around a guiding force or leader. Pink argues that successful group timing requires the existence of a leader, whether that be a person—like an air traffic controller, guiding planes on landing and takeoff—or a thing, like a computer game, dictating when a game starts or whose turn is next. 

The Rise of Leaderless Movements

Pink argues that successful group collaboration requires a leader, however the 21st century has seen a rise in leaderless protests movements like the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement. 

For many of these movements, the lack of a central leader is deliberate. While these leaderless movements are often difficult to repress, they also come with their own challenges. For example, the “yellow vests” protests in France experienced an internal rift when some members of the movement wanted to continue demonstrating while others wanted to throw their weight behind political candidates in the European elections. 

However, despite these challenges, some of the movements have seen success, like protests that resulted in the reversal of unpopular legislation in Hong Kong or the resignation of politicians in Bolivia. But political sociologists emphasize that when judging the success of social movements, it’s important to remember their purpose, which isn’t to solve the problems that sparked them, but to raise the questions that aren’t being addressed.

Next, people must synchronize with each other, effectively working together toward a common purpose. Pink argues that for people to willingly, and successfully, synchronize with other people, they must feel a sense of belonging. Belonging is an intrinsic human motivation, but Pink outlines three tools that can further elevate our sense of belonging: shared language, symbols of affiliation, and physical connection. 

  • Shared language can be a shared native language, slang, or jargon commonly understood within a specific field. 
  • Symbols of affiliation could be anything from a school uniform to a Superbowl ring, a visual cue of belonging.
  • Physical connection includes informal gestures of affection, like a hug or a pat on the back, to more formal examples of physical contact like a handshake.

(Shortform note: While shared language, symbols, and physical affection can bolster a sense of belonging, they don’t guarantee it. Research has found that creating a sense of belonging, specifically for young people, requires more. To foster belonging, groups must offer personal agency, affirmation, opportunities to be heard, and an emphasis on individual and collective well-being.)

The final stage of group synchronization is synchronizing with others. At this stage, people don’t just work together because they’re told to, or because everybody else is working together, but because it feels good to work together. This level of synchronization is particularly strong when people are acting in unison, like playing in an orchestra or ballroom dancing. 

When people enter this final stage of synchronization, they create a self-reinforcing cycle of goodwill that comes when we coordinate with others. Pink argues that working in coordination with others contributes to our sense of well-being, which makes us want to work with others more, which in turn makes us better at synchronizing, which again increases feelings of well-being—a cycle that improves collective well-being and group synchronicity simultaneously. 

But What About the Introverts?

Even though collaboration is central to the human experience, not everyone experiences working in groups the same way. In Quiet, Susan Cain explains that introverts, who make up at least a third of the US population, often prefer to work alone or with just one or two people. They tend to be quieter and more reflective, and may not gain the same sense of well-being from highly synchronized group activities.

Cain advocates for redesigning the collaboration process to consider the strengths of both introverts and extroverts. For example, she suggests using online brainstorming as a tool for generating ideas and creative flexible working environments in which there are both social spaces and quiet spaces for solitary work.
Understanding the Psychology of Collaboration

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Daniel H. Pink's "When" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full When summary:

  • How our daily lives and experiences follow predictable patterns
  • How to harness this daily rhythm to work and live more intentionally
  • Why the middle of an experience is the hardest part

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.