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Why is it so hard to get people to do what we want?(Part 1)

Part 1: Unmasking the hierarchy of cooperation

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct or more uncertain of its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old scheme and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new…”(Machiavelli, The Prince)


One of the hardest things about trying to make something happen — whether it’s a transformation from the old to the new, or an entirely new construction — is the problem of cooperation. What we do alone, we do easily. What we do together with others is fraught with complexity and division. Without some unifying force, people are often little more than a shapeless mob, content to tread water for their day to day wants.

I’ve studied cooperation (mainly by accident) over many years, and the scaling of intent in both machines and people. It turns out that the principles for humans and machines are not as different as we might expect. We love to put humans on a pedestal, imagining that humanity to be on a uniquely different level, moved by intelligence and feeling. Yet, in practice, we don’t use those qualities all of the time. Continuous change is mentally and physically exhausting, so we suppress our agency. We tread water. We punt. We even imitate machinery in daily life, for consistency. In the context of work we deliberately suppress human qualities to encourage predictability. But expecting an enthusiastic awakening from laissez faire passivity, to engage in major change, would be a mistake. Change will awaken doubts and raise both welcome and unwelcome emotions up on an unwanted pedestal.

As a theoretician, I’ve studied cooperation as part of Promise Theory, often together with my long time collaborator Jan Bergstra, spanning cases from Information Technology, to services, to human workplaces, even politics. As a fellow flawed human, I’ve witnessed the theory in action, through the startups and organizations I’ve helped to build and evolve. I’ve learned that, even as we may begin to understand it, putting it into practice, and getting it all right is the hardest thing. This series of posts concerns how we can apply the theory as a lever into understanding the dynamics of cooperation for a human workforce — and what that means for leadership.

Leadership and management, from strongmen to mission statements

Organization heads, founders, and business owners (as well as their appointed managers) are in a confusing position. Backed by the alleged authority of legal convention, society appears to "grant" the owners of such things "rights" to make decisions, within the system of law. It's a nice idea, but that's not really how cooperation works.

In Western thinking, the world view focuses on a kind of material view of “having things”, i.e.ownership. Once we have something, we assume we just have it — and we neglect the gradual decay of that “having” that eventually undermines the belief. In Promise Theory, laws fall under the category of impositions, and we must remind ourselves that impositions are generally ineffective. A more realistic world view would focus on how to keep the things we believe are “ours”, by maintaining the necessary processes of grooming everyone involved. It's how to maintain the state of privilege we believe we enjoy — by having everyone agree that this is a meaningful situation.

When managers command, with the presumption of a right to authority, they’re often surprised to meet resistance, especially in the Western world where the idea of freedom and democracy have been propagandized for decades on a political level. In the West, individualism now trumps collectivism, or the consideration of a greater good. Spock's famous "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one)" is now despised as a violation of basic rights. Perhaps we've gone too far in the mantra of freedom.

The management conundrum is this: according to legal convention, organizational owners can delegate authority or pass on the rights to appointees of their choosing. Contracts and agreements are usually involved in order to fill in the cracks of trust. But this elaborate charade is only an attempt to short cut the most basic phenomenon of cooperation: hard won knowledge of agents capabilities and behaviours. Knowledge only comes from repetitive experience — day to day practice, rehearsal.


Perhaps one day machine learning might replace the need for grooming of human relationships, but we are nowhere near close to that day today, because machine learning is still flat and one dimensional, but human communication has many layers as I discuss below.

Our legal tradition derives from a long history of power play, in which rights were conquered by strongmen leaders, backed by the threat of violence. Habitual feudalism eventually settled into capitalism and then became institutionalized as law, post Magna Carta. Today we see this legacy as an accomplishment of civilization — the long term outcome of all that grooming. If we scratch the surface of this game play, the threat of force is still there, just waiting on a more distance horizon — -but, the threat of immediate force is a poor short-cut (a placeholder) to build trust. To avoid revolt, there's no short cut to relationship building. We can try for a leap of faith at the start, or an gradual outcome delivered over time, but in both cases the bill for grooming will be paid or the progress will be revoked.

Today, we're far less cowed by the threat of violence than in the more feudal past, and the sense of legal obligation is more tenuously maintained than in a long time. The real test of leadership is to make people want to follow, to design a mission that can inspire and resonate with individuals in a context of individualistic personal relevance. If we're lucky, we can inspire a leap of faith. If not, it will be a long slog to push the rock up the hill.

Paying the Bill of Rights

The legal conventions mentioned above are sometimes assumed to mean the existence of a fundamental right of owners and managers to impose ideas and decisions on a workforce. That would be convenient, but it's a fiction of wishful thinking. Employees typically sign up to a contractual agreement to accept this narrative, but the idea of a right in a legal sense throws confusion on the meaning of willingness to accept in a more general sense. In the developed world, we claim notions like basic “human rights” to protect the interests of employees — more wishful thinking, relying on the goodwill of all than a privilege granted. We use the claim of rights as a kind of virtual currency of power — in which the legal owner is society itself.

What employees may be willing to accept in the moment is quite far from "anything and everything" decided by legal owners and their appointees — no matter how well intentioned that may be. We have law courts because it’s impossible to commit every contingency to rules or to promises. As both rational and emotional beings, humans are in a constant state flux in their judgement about a situation. That’s a good thing — the basis for enabling change, but it also means that all that grooming or maintenance is necessary to keep cooperation together.


Context as well as experience and expertise are in play — which doesn’t always percolate to all levels of an organization. Attempts to short-cut the hard work of relationship-building and its maintenance appear to be a key reason for failure in leadership. Imposing rather than aligning.

Economics, as a mathematical subject, tries to oversimplify the value-games it models, using a single value function: money. The `bounded rationality’ movement tried to generalize this into a number of different currencies, but the attempts usually get muddled by the notion of deterministic control when these gaming models could only ever predict probabilistic (non-deterministic) outcomes. Gaming models try to predict trajectories, using simplified assumptions about the assessment of value to individuals. They overlook the role of time: short term loss could be traded for long term gain.

How we make decisions — not the org chart

The purpose of management is something like a nervous system: a guiding role to avoid harm and to steer and corral activity towards concerted goals — all naturally within the envelope of some constraints. It sounds easy enough, if only the tools were simple reliable levers and the agents in the system all had straightforward and predictable trajectories — you know, as in simple rocket science. But outcomes are hard to accomplish because predictability rests on cooperation, which itself rests on a time consuming “proof of work” grooming burden that I’ll call the hierarchy of cooperation. This hierarchy is built from the nuts and bolts of intent: promises and assessments at each level, and the maintenance of all these over time. The result is the formation of “economic games” in a house of cards, in the broadest sense. Recognizing this is the beginning, but knowing it doesn’t tell us what to do.

From the name “hierarchy of cooperation”, your thoughts might immediately jump to the hierarchy we all know as the “org chart” (organizational management hierarchy), i.e. the hierarchy of communication or management between the owner at the top and the hired helpers at the bottom. Yet, in order for that exterior hierarchy to have meaning, a more important hierarchy for cooperation is needed within each and every individual. In graph theoretical terms, the “org chart” has not authority; it’s simply a spanning tree of the organization from a natural root.

Promise Theory reminds us that the elementary ground state of all agents is autonomy — causal independence. Decision making is an individual matter — indeed, a cognitive matter in which intentions are formed within, and how they are acted upon is up to each and every individual. Not everyone believes in autonomy, because the narrative about what we have to do by law is still powerful; yet, as Sam Clemens (Mark Twain) sardonically reminded us: we don’t really have to do anything except die (oh, and pay taxes). Yet, this narrative about obligation and law has made many people think that decisions are made from the outside in: by exterior forces shaping our thoughts. It’s a convenient argument if you want to command and control. Do as you must. But it’s contingent on everyone agreeing to it!

Some neuroscientists now believe that cognition is driven largely from the inside out, not stimulated from the outside in. That presents a challenge for leadership, where would-be leaders would like their own external ideas to permeate individuals within an organization and find them compliant. However, the stream of everyone's thinking is always from within, so trying to persuade someone is always like swimming against the flow of thoughts and feelings. It takes time and considerable grooming, to try to change the direction of someone’s inner current, to match what is proposed on the outside.

In our modern world of machinery and retail consumerism, we’ve become accustomed to being able to get what we want with simple one-time transactions, but this is an illusion built on decades of preparation of infrastructure. On the other hand, if we’ve learned anything from software development, it should be that even machinery doesn’t understand us first time around.

The ladder of trust

The basis for transactional change is trust. Trust is hard to establish and easy to undo. We build trust by building an extended relationship in which many repeated interactions are measured by the extent to which promises are kept (or not). Each promise provides a kind of measuring scale, or ruler, by which we assess the reliability of the process that aims to keep it.

What do we mean by a promise being kept? When could the promise be broken?

Where and when does it apply? How do we trust a group, an organization, a process?

We often begin with a neutral assessment of our trust in people and things. When agents keep their promises, it increases that default level of trust in them. Conversely, a single transgression could undo months of building that trust. It accumulates slowly and is wiped out catastrophically. If we have sufficient trust, we may be willing to transact business without verifying every step. If not, we need to check every detail, which takes time and effort. It’s expensive. Trust is therefore an economic currency. It builds through alignment of promises.

What does this mean for decision making? The trust ladder is a layered cake. The final arbiter of any decision is the palette of assessments that each individual agent can express: the basic range of feelings (or their machine analogues) that reduce complex reasoning into "good" of "bad". Emotions play a key role even in rational decision-making, because they are the “if-then-else” conditions that cut through infinite loops of indecision: the role of emotions is to short-circuit endless rounds of questioning "are we there yet?".


Take an example — when are we happy to accept an answer? We doubt what others tell us, so we ask why? or how? and make out acceptance conditional on the answer. Endless rational answers can be provided, but it's only when we actually feel contented with an answer that we are willing to stop contending and settle.

The hierarchy of trust builds a delicate house of cards (figure 1). If we start at the top, trying to prescribe a plan without a foundation, we’re likely to provoke a random response from further down the stack, which leads to misunderstandings, or at worst an emotional cut off.

Figure 1: the hierarchy of trust building. Without grooming the state of each individual, addressing fear, pride, desire, etc, any attempt to rely on an individual is prone to failure. Relying on redundant individuals might increase the likelihood of a desired outcome, but adds more uncertainty. Grooming or `training’ for the outcome (the desired state) is the best way to ensure fulfilment of intent. Promise Theory applies to each level of this hierarchy.

We can’t easily jump straight into trusting step by step instructions, unless we already have a long-standing relationship of trust to build on. We first need to build that relationship (by long term repeated interaction) where we gradually learn to know enough about one another to trust. We have to steer around the basic cut-offs — feelings, emotions — so we have to first build alignment emotionally, overcoming pride and prejudice. This opens the way from the bottom to have extended conversations — not push transactions or legal requirements, but dialogue. Once dialogue is stable, we can build on the mutual understanding of themes and ideas, goals and outcomes. Finally, once we have alignment there, we can start to propose steps and terms details.

In my experience (in which I have often failed to handle this well), we impatiently want management to work in exactly the opposite way to this. We want to prescribe steps and end up with success and happiness. We may try to pay for trust using power symbols (job titles, reputations, brand names, etc), but that's a risky gambit. It’s almost a tragedy that this idea is entirely backwards.

Promise Theory and trust


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