Shared governance and the cooperation instinct

You probably don’t think of Discover, a magazine devoted to science, technology, and the future, as a likely source of governance advice. But that’s what the December issue brought my way via the cover article titled “The Cooperation Instinct: Why Evolution Favors Nice Guys.

To be fair, author Kristin Ohlson would (rightfully) be surprised by my reading of the article. Her purpose was to tell the story of renowned biologist Martin Nowak’s longtime study of evolution and natural selection.

It seems the scientific community is in an uproar over Nowak’s claim that Darwin got it wrong about the survival of the fittest. As he sees it, “in a competition between groups, the one that has the tighter bonds and more cooperative members will tend to win out.”

In other words, ours is more a dog-help-dog, than dog-eat-dog world. “Cooperation is a fundamental principle of evolution,” Nowak says.

That’s what got my attention — the idea of cooperation as a fundamental principle.  It’s what I preach all the time in work with boards of theological schools and other faith-based nonprofits. Things go better and organizations are stronger when people (e.g. board members, administrators, and faculty) work together toward common ends.


Consider Nowak’s observation that “when individuals were forced into the same space, working together . . .  gave everyone a better shot at survival.”  It’s amazing what a committed group of people can accomplish when joined in common purpose, even when the deck seems stacked against them and their cause. The theological schools with which I work — the most fragile of institutions — are a testament to the strength that comes in sharing, beginning with governance.

Granted, there’s often more than a tad of self-interest when staff, administrators, or board members share governance prerogatives.  In organizational life, as in nature, “the most basic form of cooperation, dubbed direct reciprocity, arises when an individual will do another a good turn in the expectation that sometime in the future she can expect similar treatment in return.” Not a perfect motivation for shared governance, to be sure, but it’s a start.

The higher stage of evolution is characterized by “cooperation between people who barely know each other” (think faculty and board members), a behavior Nowak refers to as ” indirect reciprocity.” Despite the critics’ claims, such cooperation isn’t happenstance or a freak of organizational nature. It’s the result of trustworthiness, intentional communication, and willingness to work across institutional “aisles.” In Nowak’s words, “players with good reputations experienced more cooperation than those with bad reputations.”

And the gold-star take-away for devotees of shared governance? “Cooperation doesn’t require a magistrate’s court. It is an innate part of the biology that helped us evolve. Cooperation lies at the core of who we are” – including when the “we” are board members, administrators, faculty, or staff.


  1. Perry Engle says:

    Very good article. Thanks for your observations.

  2. Good to hear from you, Perry. Beyond my application of Nowak’s work to shared governance and higher education, there’s a lot that denominational execs can take away from his insights about the power of cooperation. At their best, denominations encourage and facilitate indirect reciprocity. Networks of churches and pastors who are able to see beyond their own buildings to the potential of greater ministry through the efforts and vision of the whole can accomplish much for the Kingdom. That’s what I tried to communicate during my years as champion for Brethren in Christ Cooperative Ministries. So sad I didn’t gain many converts to the message.

What's your take on this topic?

%d bloggers like this: