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Fostering altruism and cooperation

Dr. Simon Moss


Managers and supervisors often want to encourage employees to act more altruistically and cooperatively, perhaps approving some initiative, engaging in some behavior that contradicts their personal preferences, assisting busy colleagues, or participating in community programs. Many strategies, tactics, and practices can be applied to encourage altruistic and desirable behaviors in employees (see, for example, Organizational citizenship behavior). Overall, individuals tend to act more cooperatively and supportively when their mood is positive. A variety of other factors promote altruism and cooperation, however.

Supervisor support

Frequency of interactions

Step 1. Each day, supervisors and managers should evaluate their own mood. If they feel happy and content, they should primarily interact with employees who tend to be competitive and egocentric rather than cooperative and supportive. If they feel anxious or frustrated, they should primarily interact with employees who tend to be sociable but uncommitted or unmotivated.

When leaders of teams or workgroups seem happy and content, the effort of employees declines but communication and cooperation improves (Sy, Cote, & Saavedra, 2005). To illustrate, leaders sometimes feel content and excited. As a consequence, the typically display a happy expression on their face. Members of their team or workgroup will tend to mimic this expression inadvertently. Individuals who exhibit this expression will tend to feel happier themselves. In other words, when leaders feel content and excited, members of the team also tend to experience happiness.

When employees feel happy, they assume their goals and targets have been achieved (see Mood as input). This assumption arises because they recognise that achievement tends to coincide with happiness. Because they assume their goals and targets have been fulfilled, their effort declines.

On the other hand, when employees feel happy, they also assume that other individuals are trustworthy. That is, they become more likely to focus their attention on the desirable qualities of other individuals. They, therefore, become more cooperative and supportive (Sy, Cote, & Saavedra, 2005).

Seeking advice from employees

Step 2. Before managers decide to implement some change or initiative, they should seek advice, suggestions, and contributions primarily from employees with whom they have not formed a strong relationship. For example, these employees could contribute to the decision of which technologies should be purchased. Alternatively, these employees could be asked to be involved in specifying the drawbacks of these technologies and suggestions for improvement. Finally, managers should not initially present an inspiring vision of the future& that is, they should not emphasize the values and objectives they would like to achieve, until after their relationship with these individuals becomes more open and trusting.

To demonstrate, individuals tend to be altruistic only if they feel a sense of connection to their workgroup or organization, and this sense of connection emerges only if they feel respected& that is, they need to feel their status or standing is elevated. When individuals have not formed a solid relationship with their supervisor or manager, they perceive themselves to be low in status. They are especially likely to perceive themselves as low in status if their supervisor presents an inspiring vision of the future, because they feel this vision is intended to challenge their own values. They are also especially likely to perceive themselves as low in status if their supervisor promises incentives, implying they would not perform suitably without these potential rewards.

Nevertheless, they do feel more respected, and thus become more inclined to assist,if their advice or opinion is sought (Sparrowe, Soetjipto, & Kraimer, 2006). In contrast, when employees work in jobs in which they use technology that demands few, if any, decisions from the operator, but is instead almost entirely automatic and almost operates continuously, they become less inclined to assist other colleagues or act altruistically (O'Driscol, Pierce, & Coghlan, 2006). Opportunities to contribute to decisions do not affect individuals who have formed a solid, stable relationship with their supervisor, because these employees already feel respected (Sparrowe, Soetjipto, & Kraimer, 2006).

To illustrate this issue in a training session, participants could be asked to rate the extent to which they seek contributions or ideas from other colleagues as well as the degree to which they like these individuals. They might discover they seek contributions only from individuals they like.

Policies and speeches

Words during speeches

Step 1. Supervisors could use words that relate to religious concepts, such as heaven, miracle, angel, salvation, soul, or faith. They should, however, ensure the sentences do not explicitly relate to religious concepts. For example, they could introduce a slogan such as "We have faith in our employees". During a speech, they could mention "I think this idea could be our salvation".

After individuals are incidentally exposed to religious concepts, such as heaven, miracle, angel, salvation, soul, or faith, they become more likely to assist another person (Pichon, Boccato, & Saroglou, 2007). That is, exposure to religious concepts activates unconscious memories of helpful, charitable behaviours. Activation of these memories then affects the behaviour of individuals, ensuring they act more charitably.

Qualities and threats to the workgroup

Step 2. Supervisors should emphasize how the group, perhaps the project team, the organization, or the profession, are perceived as very supportive of community programs or other altruistic initiatives. Next, the supervisor should emphasize that, despite this reputation, the group has been criticized on other grounds. That is, the supervisor should highlight other events that could threaten the reputation or success of this group.

Sometimes, criticizing a particular group of individuals can promote, not curb, their altruism (van Leeuwen, 2007). When individuals feel their group, such as their project team, nation, ethnicity, and so forth, is criticized, scorned, or threatened, they experience a sense of insecurity. To overcome this insecurity, they feel a need to reinforce the group, primarily by highlighting the favourable qualities of this collective. They become driven to engage in activities that demonstrate the established strengths of this group (see also Terror management theory).

They also, however, become less inclined to engage in activities that do not demonstrate these strengths. If the group, for example, feel they are perceived as altruistic, involved in many community programs, the individuals become more eager to engage in these ethical activities after their collective is criticized. Conversely, if they group do not feel they are perceived as altruistic, the individuals become less eager to engage in ethical activities after their collective is criticized.

Aspirations of the workgroup

Step 3. In addition, employees should be encouraged to reflect upon their lives two years from now--the aspirations they would like to fulfill, for themselves, their workgroup, their organization, and their state. After individuals imagine their life one or two years from now, they seek courses of action that fulfil broader values, such as social harmony, than pragmatic outcomes, such as money (Kivetz & Tyler, 2007).

Performance management

Step 4. To encourage employees to assist one another, the extent to which individuals improve their skills, knowledge, strategies, and tactics should be evaluated frequently. These evaluations should significantly influence decisions that affect pay, bonuses, and promotions.

Employees who feel a strong urge to enhance their skills and expertise are actually more likely to assist one another (Porter, 2005). That is, when employees assist a colleague, they might not be able to complete their own tasks or fulfil their own goals. However, employees who feel a strong urge to enhance their skills and expertise are not especially concerned with whether or not they are evaluated unfavourably. They are, therefore, not perturbed by the possibility they will not complete the tasks they were assigned. Instead, they perceive this assistance as an opportunity to acquire effective skills, networks, and strategies (see also Goal orientation).

Communication: Connection

Step 5. Employees need to receive more information about the history or structure of their organization, an understanding that fosters altruism. Individuals are more inclined to feel a sense of ownership over the organization if they understand this entity, and this sense of ownership, promotes altruism (O'Driscol, Pierce, & Coghlan, 2006).

Incidental remarks

Social connection

Step 1. To encourage employees to act altruistically, engaging in behaviours that enhance the organization, they should receive praise that highlights the extent to which they seem integrated and liked. Supervisors could assert "You seemed to have formed many trusting friends here". Compliments that highlight their social connections to colleagues, rather than other qualities, are especially likely to promote altruistic behaviour.

If individuals feel excluded or isolated from their workgroup, such as when they are not invited to a social gathering, rather than attempt to strengthen their relationships, they become less altruistic (Twenge,Baumeister, DeWall, Ciarocco, & Bartels, 2007). In particular, after individuals feel a sense of exclusion, they become less aware of their own emotions. As this awareness diminishes, their capacity to feel empathy towards anyone else also subsides. As a consequence, they become less likely to assist a person who needs support.

Physical surroundings


Step 1. To enhance cooperation between colleagues, employees should be encouraged to attach photographs of their most trusted friends or family members. They should ensure that individuals they feel are more judgemental or unpredictable are not included in these photographs. Photographs with trusted friends or family members provide a sense of security and confidence, alleviating anxiety and promoting cooperation.

Employees who form an image of a person they trust completely, or merely observe the name of this individual, become more likely to feel compassion and offer assistance (Mikulincer, Shaver, Gillath, & Nitzberg, 2005& see also Erez, Mikulincer, van Ijzendoorn, & Kroonenberg, 2008). To demonstrate, after employees either imagine or interact with anyone they trust implicitly, they experience a sense of security. Because of this sense of security, their usual urge to enhance their own self esteem tends to diminish. As a consequence, they involuntarily focus their attention on the feelings and perspectives of other individuals. Accordingly, they are more likely to experience empathy and concern (see Attachment theory).


Step 2. Employees often need to respond to specific signals or symbols. For example, they might need to assist a client whenever they hear a bell. Alternatively, they might need to complete some task whenever a particular word appears on their screen. In these instances, the signals or symbols should somehow be related to cooperation, support, or happiness. One of the symbols, for example, could be the word "Assist" not "Go".

When individuals need to focus their attention on symbols that relate to cooperation, support, or happiness they become more confident in social settings (Dandeneau, Baldwin, Baccus, Sakellaropoulo, & Pruessner, 2007& Wadlinger & Isaacowitz, 2008). Furthermore, individuals who tend to direct their attention to words or cues that relate to cooperation are more agreeable and obliging (Wilkowski, Robinson, & Meier, 2006).


Step 3. Whenever possible, managers should ensure the fittings or furnishings of their organization are not too opulent. If possible, managers should not wear or use expensive products.

Such conspicuous affluence merely provokes unethical behavior. That is, exposure to opulence has been shown to provoke envy, perhaps unconsciously. Envy then tends to provoke inappropriate behavior. In one study, for example, even exposure to bundles of money increased the likelihood that participants would cheat on a test (Gino & Pierce, 2009& see The abundance effect).


Step 4. At regular intervals, Windex or other products that smell like citrus should be sprayed on glass or other reflective surfaces. . These smells evoke memories of hygiene. This sense of hygiene or purity tends to evoke more charitable behaviour (Lilenquist, Zhong, & Galinsky, 2010).


Step 5. If possible, managers should ensure the offices or workspaces are as light as possible. Blinds and shutters should be open, whenever applicable. A light environment has been shown to promote ethical behaviour (Zhong, Bohns, & Gino, 2010).

Related objectives

Also see articles on:


Dandeneau, S. D., Baldwin, M. W., Baccus, J. R., Sakellaropoulo, M., & Pruessner, J. C. (2007). Cutting stress off at the pass: Reducing vigilance and responsiveness to social threat by manipulating attention. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 651-666.

Erez, A., Mikulincer, M., van Ijzendoorn, M. H., & Kroonenberg, P. M. (2008). Attachment, personality, and volunteering: Placing volunteerism in an attachment-theoretical framework. Personality and Individual Differences, 44, 64-74.

Gino, F., & Pierce, L. (2009). The abundance effect: Unethical behavior in the presence of wealth. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 109, 142-155.

Laio, H., Chuang, A., & Joshi, A. (2008). Perceived deep-level dissimilarity: Personality antecedents and impact on overall job attitudes, helping, work withdrawal, and turnover. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 106, 106-124.

Lilenquist, K., Zhong, C., & Galinsky, A. D. (2010). The smell of virtue: Clean scents promote reciprocity and charity. Psychological Science, 21, 381-383.

Kivetz, Y., & Tyler, T. R. (2007). Tomorrow I'll be me: The effect of time perspective on the activation of idealistic versus pragmatic selves. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 102, 193-211.

Mikulincer, M., Shaver, P. R., Gillath, O., & Nitzberg, R. A. (2005). Attachment, caregiving, and altruism: Boosting attachment security increases compassion and helping. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 817-839.

O'Driscol,M. P., Pierce, J. L., & Coghlan, A. (2006). The psychology of ownership: Work environment structure, organizational commitment, and citizenship behaviors. Group and Organization Management, 31, 388-416.

Pichon, I., Boccato, G., & Saroglou, V. (2007). Nonconscious influences of religion on prosociality: A priming study. European Journal of Social Psychology, 37, 1032-1045.

Porter, C. O. L. H. (2005). Goal orientation: Effects on backing up behavior, performance, efficacy, and commitment in teams. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90, 811-818.

Sparrowe, R. T., Soetjipto, B. W., & Kraimer, M. L. (2006). Do leaders influence tactics relate to members helping bebavior? It depends on the quality of the relationship. Academy of Management Journal, 49, 1194-1208.

Sy, T., Cote, S., & Saavedra, R. (2005). The contagious leader: Impact of the leader's mood on the mood of group members, group affective tone, and group processes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90, 295-305.

Twenge, J. M., Baumeister, R. F., DeWall,C. N., Ciarocco, N., & Bartels, M. J. (2007). Social exclusion decreases prosocial behaviour. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 56-66.

van Leeuwen, E. (2007). Restoring identity through outgroup helping: Beliefs about international aid in response to the December 2004 tsunami. European Journal of Social Psychology, 37, 661-671.

Wadlinger, H. A., & Isaacowitz, D. M. (2008). Looking happy: The experimental manipulation of a positive visual attention bias. Emotion, 8, 121-126.

Wilkowski, B. M., Robinson, M. D., & Meier, B. P. (2006). Agreeableness and the prolonged spatial processing of antisocial and prosocial information. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 1152-1168.

Zhong, C., Bohns, V. K., & Gino, F. (2010). Good lamps are the best police: Darkness increases dishonesty and self-interested behavior. Psychological Science, 21311-314.

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Last Update: 5/7/2016