those of you who feel good about humankind’s ability work to together and solve common problems, I point you to the nearest playground for a realitycheck.
One look at the toddlers romping through the local playground or jealously hoarding the toys at the neighborhood Gymboree, and you’ll see real human nature at work. It’s a jungle out there in the jungle gym.
I speak from experience. When it’s cold outside, which is often this time of year in Chicago, my 3-year-old son and I visit the indoor gym run by our local park district. It’s a tyke-sized utopia packed with fun, interactive things to do like fishing in a miniature pool or, my son’s favorite, the 4-foot wall that resembles a giant Lite-Brite, complete with purple, green, red and yellow pegs that light up when plugged into the wall.
Wander in before opening time and the place is a childhood idyll — entertaining, educational and fun. But once those doors open up, it’s a different story. Filled with sugar-addled toddlers, it becomes a stew of pint-sized emotion — aggressive, possessive and sweaty.
My son, a usually sweet-natured kid, turns into the 3-year-old equivalent of a cranky old man on the lookout for the neighborhood kids trespassing on his lawn. Anyone, me included, who attempts to dip into his stash of fish hears it loud and clear. He guards his zone at the light wall like Dikembe Mutumbo, swatting anything that crosses his path and wagging his finger at overzealous playmates.
Many parents patiently plod along behind their pint-sized tyrants, imploring them to share with others and praising them when they do. For some, it is an important training ground for socialization. But the playground is also a useful reminder of our more naked ambitions.
Stripped of our social mores, we’re all toddlers looking out for No. 1 in a world that is often indifferent and sometimes hostile. I make light, but that internal toddler never quite goes away. Sharing and working collaboratively do not come naturally.
We cooperate when it is in our best interests to do so and usually achieve a collective good with the right systems and incentives. Humanity possesses a powerful ability to make deals and find mutually beneficial compromises. The whine-whine of childhood usually turns into the win-win of adulthood.
Yet even well-socialized adults who share early and often can regress. Researchers from Stanford University, the University of Texas, Peking University and California State University Northridge studied participants in a Weight Watchers program and found something interesting.
When pursuing a common goal such as losing weight, people start off eager and engaged with one another. They share tips and provide encouragement. But as they advance, they become more distant, less willing to share information and a helpful word with those still struggling. In the study group, the number of people reluctant to share nearly doubled as they advanced.
That spells big trouble for corporate learning departments dealing with constrained budgets and looking to peer-to-peer learning as the future. The very people in your organization who have the valuable knowledge and critical experience that others need the most are more likely to be disengaged from your learning programs and less apt to collaborate.
The answer, as it turns out, isn’t to be one of those parental nags. The researchers suggest something a little more adult: Make the pursuit of shared goals more challenging for advanced participants. What keeps people engaged is the tension and feeling of uncertainty that comes from trying to meet an elusive goal.
Another way to create that tension and keep the sharing alive is to put people together who have differentreasons to achieve the same goal. According to researchers, people who take part in a fitness program for differing reasons, such as health for one and appearance for the other, were more likely to stay engaged with one another as they advanced.
Whether you’re dealing with toddlers or soon-to-be retirees, sharing is a habit that always needs refreshing.