Human Resources | Innovation | Entrepreneurship

For a collaborative workplace, focus on a culture of giving

How bonding rituals help shape a healthy work environment

Are you a team manager? Maybe an HR manager? Is it your job to create a healthy work environment that is at the same time both competitive and collaborative? If so, you’ll undoubtedly be interested in the latest research from SFU Beedie’s Rekha Krishnan and Rajiv Krishnan Kozhikode. The paper, published in leading journal Administrative Science Quarterly, examines social resource exchange, the role it plays in entrepreneurial success, and ultimately how early rituals and behaviours of the group determine whether you can sustain a giving and collaborative work environment.

Interaction rituals in a Silicon Valley accelerator

In the research paper ‘An interaction ritual theory of social resource exchange: evidence from a Silicon Valley accelerator’ the authors explore how generalized exchange – put simply, ‘giving without expectation of receiving something in return – can emerge and be supported in an entrepreneurial environment.

To further their thinking and explore how interaction rituals are shaped in a mixed-motive context, the lead author conducted eight months of ethnographic fieldwork in an accelerator located in the Bay Area. Accelerators are a prime example of a mixed-motive context. In a typical accelerator, aspiring entrepreneurs from around the globe are required to pass a rigorous selection process before ‘competing’ with other entrepreneurs for finite resources such as investor time and funding dollars; yet, upon entering the program, entrepreneurs are explicitly encouraged to ‘‘help other peer organizations build their ventures’’ and they are expected to give ‘‘first to others…with no specific expectations of return’’.

Shared fate, different outcomes

For the purpose of this study, the investigation focused on three distinct start-up camps: Camp A, a group of entrepreneurs staying on from the previous cohort, who had obtained equity investment from the accelerator and were permitted to remain in the shared work space for up to four months after demo day; Camp B, a new batch of entrepreneurs incorporated outside the U.S, they paid a fee to be part of the accelerator; and Camp C, a new batch of entrepreneurs who obtained equity investment from the accelerator.

Day One, Camp A got down to work while Camps B and C got to meet their cohorts for the first time in their orientation sessions. The orientation in Camp B was four days long. It began with an ‘ice-breaking’ game in which entrepreneurs introduced themselves and their businesses, while the group was requested to memorize their peers’ names and business. By the time the game ended, cohorts knew each other’s names and what they were doing, and were comfortable approaching one another to discuss technology and business. There was an emphasis on collective learning in the four days, as the group was introduced to the Silicon Valley ecosystem and the art of perfecting pitches, as well as fundraising and partnering with clients. There was ample opportunity for cohorts to get to know their peers during breaks for breakfast, lunch, drinks, and pizza. But the four-day orientation did more than just prime these entrepreneurs for success, it helped them realize their ‘shared fate’:

‘‘Everything was new, and we just had the same set of challenges. It was an emotional state, and talking to each other came naturally” – Founder

In stark contrast, the orientation for Camp C lasted only two hours. The mentor gave a lecture during the first half, explaining what Camp C’s weekly group meetings would entail and emphasizing this cohort’s strengths and potential. ‘‘We received hundreds of applications. You are some of the best in the country,’’ he said. At this stage, there was a general expectation that the group could get to know each other by making a round of introductions; instead, 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 one of the first examples of such support included ‘‘exchange of users.’’ The orientation concluded with a game, which involved finding peers with similar hobbies (i.e., music, reading). Subsequently, entrepreneurs spent the rest of their first day in the open workspace, and weekly meetings started the next morning.

Early bonding helps build collaborative teams

Entrepreneurs from all three camps shared the same open workspace, which offered them ample opportunities to interact. Founders could see every table from virtually any location in the space, and they passed by other camps’ tables as they moved about the office. For the first few days, entrepreneurs in all camps made good use of this opportunity for interaction; indeed, their first encounters with peers from other camps occurred in this space.

By the end of the week – as cohorts started to make plans for the weekend – some clear distinctions between the groups started 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.

Virtuous cycle or vicious cycle? Not all rituals are helpful

One of the most striking observations from this fieldwork was identifying two very distinct sets of behaviours that define rules for engagement.

Bonding rituals: ranging from onboarding events, informal dinners, parties, hiking and small talk at the watercooler – bonding rituals invited entrepreneurs to let their guard down and open up about challenges they faced as entrepreneurs. These rituals helped participants build affinity and the desire to help fellow 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.

Tournament rituals: consisting of formal reporting on the past week’s progress, winning praise from the group mentor, networking with investors, as well as peer-to-peer weekly reviews, tournament rituals acted as implicit shows of strength and generated competition among start-ups. Founders became increasingly strategic when it came to exchanging resources with their peers, and on the occasion when a tournament ritual participant strategically approached a peer for help – and was declined – it only served to create distance in the group as members sought to avoid the ‘shame of rejection’.

In this way, the cycle is perpetuated – whether it be vicious or virtuous. Social events are key to understanding whether a mixed-motive environment continues to evolve into a community of giving, or degenerates into a hostile, even toxic workplace.

Bonding rituals for the Win!

This research has implications for organizations seeking to promote a collaborative work environment. Although employees within teams are expected to cooperate, workplaces are innately competitive as colleagues vie for opportunity and promotion. Instead, consider fostering collaboration by ensuring meetings focus on the camaraderie among members rather than celebrating their individual wins. Steering clear of ‘shows of strength’ in formal meetings can also encourage employees to engage in bonding rituals outside the organizational setup, which this study proves is essential for fostering identification with the group. What’s more, the study suggests that even in highly competitive teams, the introduction of intervening bonding rituals, such as a group hike or barbecue, can reverse negative dynamics set by tournament rituals.

In a pandemic era, where interaction rituals are almost non-existent, this research underscores the importance of bonding rituals for building healthy, collaborative work environments.

Rekha Krishnan is an Associate Professor, International Business / Innovation and Entrepreneurship at SFU’s Beedie School of Business with a focus on interaction rituals, social networks, status dynamics, entrepreneurship and emerging economies.

Rajiv Kozhikode is an Associate Professor, International Business / Management and Organization Studies. His primary research interest is in understanding how markets, states, and civil society interact to shape a variety of organizational and entrepreneurial choices.