The prisoner's dilemma

Sep 26 2014 by James M. Kerr Print This Article

The prisoner's dilemma is renowned in game theory circles. It is an example of a game that demonstrates why individuals often fail to cooperate, even when it is in their best interests to do so.

In the conventional definition of the game, two men are arrested while in the act of a crime. They are brought to the police station and put in separate interrogation rooms. They are both offered the same deal, as follows:

  • If you both remain silent, we have enough evidence to put you each away for a month;
  • But, if you inform on your partner and he is silent, then you will do no time in jail and he will be put away for a year;
  • However, if you are silent and your partner informs on you, then you will be in jail for a year and he will go free, and;
  • If you both agree to testify against each other, we'll go easy on you and you'll each do three months in jail.

Interestingly, the rational decision for each is to betray the other, even though they would be better off if they both cooperated with each other by remaining silent. After all, in the best case scenario, if you agree to testify against your a partner, you will be afforded no jail time; in the worse case scenario you will get three months in jail - both appear to be better options than taking the risk of remaining silent and having to do a year in jail (if your partner informs on you).

Unfortunately, a version of the prisoner's dilemma plays out in the business world every day. It's not uncommon for people working within the same organization, even within the same unit, to operate in conflict with one another. Of course, there are many reasons for this.

Sometimes it's due to incomplete instructions from above. Staff members think that they are working cooperatively only to find out at a later time that they're at odds with other colleagues or units because of unclear direction from the top.

Uncooperative behavior can be further impelled when unreasonable expectations, aggressive deadlines and inadequate measurement criteria are lobbed on top of a process, as well. Stress can bring out the worst in people and we've all seen this play out at work.

If these realities aren't bad enough, perhaps the nastiest form of this behavior comes when work units knowingly attend to parochial needs with complete disregard to any impact that such actions may have on other areas of the business. Sales people selling products/services that their firm's operations staff can't produce or provide is a classic example of this in action.

Regardless of the cause, uncooperative conduct hinders an organization's performance. In fact, a steady diet of it leads to lingering, sub-optimal results - the consequences of which can be disastrous to the long-term health and prosperity of the enterprise.

Clearly, we as leaders must sniff this out and take the necessary steps to eradicate the behavior.

We can do this by:

  • Being very clear and deliberate with our direction-setting;
  • Establishing appropriate expectations, deadlines and goals;
  • Aligning measurements and rewards with expected results;
  • Stressing "team" over "individual" performance, and;
  • Raising awareness and providing appropriate training, as needed.

In this way, we can reset our organization's group dynamics in a direction that enables success and help it avoid falling victim to the prisoner's dilemma.

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About The Author

James M. Kerr
James M. Kerr

James M. Kerr is a long-time author, management consultant, vision maker and coach to some of today's best leaders. His latest book, Indispensable: Build and Lead A Company Customers Canít Live Without was published in February 2021.