Why do people give without expecting anything in return? It’s something that sociologists have long wondered. If humans are in direct competition for social resources, there must be an expectation that giving will be reciprocal. On the other hand, individuals that are part of a community, often give without expecting anything in return, knowing that generalized exchange benefits all.
For Beedie School of Business professors Rekha Krishnan and Rajiv Kozhikode, this question demonstrates a social dilemma. “The question of why people give puzzles sociologists,” says Krishnan. “They worry that this model cannot be stable. If you have more takers than givers, the system will fall apart.”
As scholars who specialize in organizational studies and social interactions, Krishnan and Kozhikode wondered how these mixed motives of competition versus cooperation affected organizational culture. For example, in workplaces, employees compete for opportunities and promotions yet are also expected to collaborate. They wanted to explore what factors help promote and sustain a culture of giving within organizations.
To gain insight, they performed eight months of ethnographic fieldwork at a Silicon Valley accelerator – a perfect example of a mixed-motive setting. The typical business accelerator sees aspiring entrepreneurs compete for program access and resources such as investor time, mentorship and funding.
Accelerator participants are in direct competition with each other; however, they are expected to support a culture of collaboration and help other entrepreneurs advance their ventures. Krishnan and Kozhikode, along with researchers Karen Cook (Stanford University) and Oliver Schilke (the University of Arizona) examined how the collaborative culture was encouraged – or not – within an accelerator setting in Silicon Valley. Their paper, An Interaction Ritual Theory of Social Resource Exchange: Evidence from a Silicon Valley Accelerator, outlines their findings.
The lead author followed three distinct cohorts in the Bay Area accelerator: Camp A, a group of entrepreneurs who previously completed the program and obtained equity investment from the accelerator; Camp B, a new group of entrepreneurs from outside of the US who had paid a fee to join the accelerator; and Camp C, a new group of entrepreneurs who had also obtained equity investment and were new to the program. All Camps shared an open workspace over a period of four months.
On day one, Camp A got down to work in the shared space, while Camps B and C took part in separate orientation sessions and met their cohorts for the first time. Orientation for Camp B was four days long. It began with an ‘ice-breaker’ game where entrepreneurs introduced themselves and their ventures, and the group got to know each other. After the ice-breaker, cohorts were comfortable approaching each other. Over the four-day orientation, there was an emphasis on collective learning, as the group was introduced to the Silicon Valley ecosystem, the art of perfecting pitches, fundraising, and partnering with clients. There were opportunities for the members of Camp B to interact with their peers during breaks for breakfast, lunch, drinks and pizza.
In stark contrast, the orientation for Camp C lasted only two hours. For the first hour, a mentor briefed them on the program format while emphasizing the cohort’s strengths and potential. ‘‘We received hundreds of applications. You are some of the best in the country,’’ they were told. Rather than a round of formal introductions, the mentor drew attention to only two companies: one with close to a million users and another in a much-sought-after domain. The mentor pointed out that entrepreneurs should support each other, and that such support included “exchange of users.” The orientation concluded with a game, which involved finding peers with similar hobbies. Afterwards, Camp C entrepreneurs spent the rest of their first day in the open workspace with the other cohorts, and weekly meetings started the next morning.
“The key to this research is that we were able to observe groups of entrepreneurs as they came together from day one, which allowed us to understand how generalized exchange systems developed over time. We had the chance to see their relationships evolve over time, and whether these were collaborative or competitive.” says Krishnan.
Entrepreneurs from all three camps shared the same open workspace, which offered them ample opportunities to interact. For the first few days, entrepreneurs in all camps made good use of this opportunity – indeed, their first encounters with peers from other camps occurred in this space.
By the end of week one, as cohorts started to make plans for the weekend, some clear distinctions between the groups began to emerge. In just a few days, it was clear that the familiarity established in Camp B’s orientation made its founders more comfortable with each other than the founders in Camp C. That level of comfort in Camp B also seemed to help those founders initiate and welcome informal events with peers from Camp A.
Interactional rituals that build relationships
The fieldwork revealed the effects of two distinct group-level interaction rituals: bonding and tournament rituals. During onboarding, Camps A and B had been encouraged to form relationships, which were reinforced through bonding rituals such as shared meal breaks, organized hikes, and informal weekend get-togethers.
These bonding rituals enabled the entrepreneurs to let their guard down and open up about the challenges they faced as entrepreneurs. They helped participants realize their shared fate as entrepreneurs and the need to help their peers. Bonding ritual participants were not only comfortable asking their peers for help but also received help from peers who gave without expecting anything in return.
These early acts of giving generated a sense of gratitude among those who received help, and who willingly paid it forward. This giving-gratitude cycle eventually resulted in a thriving community of giving and a dense network populated by effective relationships.
Meanwhile, programming for Camp C was structured quite differently. After a very short orientation, the cohorts regularly engaged in weekly progress meetings, while others did not. These weekly meetings resembled tournament rituals where the common focus was on entrepreneurs’ show of strength, as they reported progress made on their ventures.
The tournament rituals generated an expectation amongst entrepreneurs to be strategic in exchanging knowledge and resources with peers. Accordingly, when tournament ritual participants strategically approached knowledgeable peers for help, they declined to help, as they did not see value in doing so.
These failed early exchanges became shaming rituals, as entrepreneurs who felt undervalued and rejected by their peers subsequently avoided peer interactions. This shaming-avoidance cycle resulted in rapid dissolution of ties and in the end, what remained was a sparsely connected network populated by meaningless encounters.
Setting in motion a virtuous cycle
“Our findings definitely have implications for other organizations aiming to foster collaborative work environments,” says Krishnan. “Organizations can foster collaboration by ensuring that formal meetings focus on the camaraderie among members rather than celebrating individual wins. Formal meetings can also encourage employees to engage in bonding rituals outside the organization, which our study shows are essential for fostering identification with the group.”
Moreover, the study suggests that even in highly competitive teams, bonding rituals such as games, group hikes or barbeques can help individuals identify with their group, build familiarity with teammates and aid in the acceptance of new members. Bonding rituals could also aid in reversing the negative dynamics of an overly competitive workplace. Krishnan mentions that these interactions can be engineered but should also be allowed to happen organically.
“When people get to know each other, and learn to appreciate what each can contribute, the relationships will naturally develop over time. The bonding rituals underlying these relationships ought to be refreshed regularly to reap the benefits – something that has been especially challenging during the pandemic.”
The good news is that early and ongoing bonding rituals can set in motion a gratitude-giving cycle that is self-perpetuating and is ultimately beneficial for organizations and for the individuals within them.