July 25, 2013

Paradoxical Competition: A Gopher Strategy for Agents?

Picture of Pocket Gopher

When you think about competition and cooperation, you probably imagine they are like black and white.

Even though there may be occasional shades of gray between them, basically, in any given specific single situation, action and moment, if you choose competition, you imagine you have to give up cooperation (and vice versa).

But, maybe that’s a misconception.

Visible Fist and Invisible Hand: Conventional Competition

If it is a misconception, it is an understandable mistake: In conventional, familiar competition, say, like that between two professional boxers, the adversaries are expected to savagely fight to really win (or so their fans

hope). No gray area of carrying each other through the fight or of staging and taking a dive. This is familiar black-and-white, black-and-blue—albeit some-holds-barred—“zero-sum”, “I win-you lose” competition.

The boxers’ not-so-invisible fists, like Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” weeding out unsuccessful businesses, make this a fiercely competitive zero-sum game with only one winner and only one loser (assuming no draw).

However, if the fight is instead and indeed rigged, then despite any appearances to the contrary, it is a “cooperative non-zero-sum game”, i.e., both boxers “win” something (secret price-fixing cartels being an economic counterpart).

Somewhat more authentic grays tend to emerge when the “players” cooperate in one situation or dimension, but compete in another, so that, through averaging, their choices appear gray.This is conventional alternation between competition and cooperation.

Boxers agree to fight—hence, cooperate on one day, e.g., at the press conference announcing the fight (but spiced up with some competitive trash-talk), to compete with one another. Likewise, they cooperate with the referee and follow the rules, thereby indirectly cooperating with each other, all the while brutally competing.

But what about this very different and counter-intuitive alternative—a case in which in one and the same situation, moment and action the players are paradoxically competing and cooperating, with very high stakes?

Pocket-Gopher Lessons: Sacrificing Your Cake While Others Get Eaten

This kind of high-stakes gamble does exist in nature: It is exemplified by the altruistic gene-pool preserving, seemingly suicidal behavior of rodents such as black-tailed prairie dogs and pocket gophers, among which at least one individual will pop up from its burrow hole to voice an alarm upon sighting an approaching  predator, such as a hawk, about to swoop down upon their colony.

There is an analogy of this for humans and in the workplace, as will be shown, below.

An indisputably high-risk cooperative strategy, it nonetheless pays off for the gopher genes shared with other kin-related colony members, since if the exposed gopher is killed, copies of its genes in the bodies of its kin will have been protected and able to replace him (as opposed to having more than one gopher seized by a flock of predators attacking undetected).

On the other hand, and as a direct opposite and result of cooperation, by communicating with the predator birds, the gopher is serving notice that it, rather than some other inattentive or silent, visible relative, has detected the predator and is ready to flee, leaving any other exposed but silent gophers at greater risk of predation and the ultimate immediate competitive loss—of their bodies, if not also their genes.

Bottom gopher-line: The vocalized warning simultaneously serves to cooperatively help other gophers by warning them and also to compete with them, by deflecting attack from the alarm-raising gopher.

The same thing is true in the African savannah: The vigorous kicks of a Thomson’s stotting gazelle upon spotting a lion accomplish exactly the same two things (by warning others—as cooperation—and by displaying its own fitness and agility, to deflect an attack onto less fit members of the herd—as competition).

When a human chooses what I’ll call the “gopher strategy”, (s)he becomes that gopher and gazelle, to the extent that (s)he is betting on big gains against big risk, at least, in part, by simultaneously helping and cooperating with others with whom (s)he is otherwise at that moment and in that same action competing, e.g., for immediate survival and eventual mates, in the gopher case, for clients, customers, candidates, etc., in ours.

In more abstract terms, that behavior is what I have called a “means-alternative”: a strategy that is a means to one goal and a means to an incompatible, opposite goal.

An example is reading on a train, which can be a means to privacy, or a way of inducing another passenger into starting a conversation. Another is advising a job applicant to rework a resume and resubmit it the next time an ad appears, as an example of a welcoming rejection. In the gopher case, the alarm call is a means to both cooperation and competition.

If a human chooses a gopher strategy, (s)he will simultaneously and directly compete while cooperating—both in one go, while generating competitive and cooperative benefits for himself or herself.

Now, knowing this much about the gopher strategy, and if you are considering utilizing it, two things remain to be decided: how to gopher it and whether or not to do so.

The Apollo Creed Gopher Strategy

First, revisit the boxers to see how a pocket gopher strategy can be applied in a “winning “way in at least one very familiar and literal human arena. Imagine that after knocking out his opponent, the victorious and undisputed champ decides to coach him—to help him become a better fighter.

Counter to the jungle laws of boxing as instinctively understood, this risky magnanimity can nonetheless make very good sense.

Recall “Rocky III”, when “Apollo Creed” (Carl Weathers) did exactly this, when he trained “Rocky Balboa” (Sylvester Stallone) after losing to him, asking, in return, a return match with Rocky, who had previously beaten him.

By training his competitor, the (ex-)champ is contributing to making a rematch a very exciting affair indeed, which, when promoted as such, will all but ensure increased and huge ticket sales, advertising revenues for broadcasters and a bigger payday for both fighters.

Of course, this is a big gamble that will carry a very high risk for the (ex-)champ: the risk of being knocked out and losing the boxing title to the well-trained viper (pounding) at his breast.

However, literally at the same time, while coaching his arch-rival, the (ex-)champ can directly and simultaneously compete while cooperating, because in coaching himl, he is learning more about that rival’s weaknesses, some of which can be left uncorrected, by design or otherwise.

Hence, in one and the same action, situation and moment, this rival-slash-coach can theoretically be cooperating and competing in a very high-stakes gopher way.

Can anything like this happen in the office—i.e., is there a true human analogue of the pocket-gopher strategy in more strait-laced workplaces?

Agents as Gophers

The attempt to identify an opportunity for a gopher cooperative-competitive office strategy may involve some false starts.

Here’s one: An agency recruiter X can generally compete with another, Y, down the street, yet, once in a while, cooperate when the client of that competitor needs a candidate in X’s pool (with the expectation of reciprocity at some point or of a reserve of “good will” to be drawn upon later).

This is a blend of cooperation and competition, but it is not a gopher strategy, because the cooperation and competition as one specific means-alternative action are not simultaneous, as they are in the Apollo Creed and Rocky case.

It’s merely a low-risk, on-average mutually beneficial “reciprocal altruism” strategy with a normal delay between “altruism” and reward.

So, what situation, if any, does present an opportunity for an office gopher cooperative-competitive strategy?

One clear and ethically unproblematic possibility is the case of a seasoned recruiter teaching a newcomer recruiter the ropes.

In having expertise that the new recruiter doesn’t, the veteran is competitively reinforcing his place in the company pecking order, while cooperatively assisting with the new guy’s orientation and skill-set enhancement.

The main difference between the incumbent recruiter and Apollo Creed scenarios is that at no time is the new recruiter who is being shown the ropes ever limply hanging on them.

Dual Agency and Double Agents: Scrupulous and Unscrupulous,

What about a recruiter’s or any agent’s fundamental role as the middleman between two partially conflicting interests? Is this also a gopher strategy?

A “rational” job candidate wants to maximize his salary, while a “rational” hiring company wants to minimize it. A real estate agent “double-ending” a deal by representing both the buyer and seller is in a position to maximize his own gains, i.e., double his commission (one from the buyer and one from the seller).

By simultaneously representing both parties, much as real estate agents sometimes do, is the recruiter cooperating and competing with each of them in every negotiating moment and situation? That is, is the recruiter following a pocket-gopher strategy?

No—not if the recruiter, real estate agent, etc., is sticking to his profession’s code of ethics. Professionally prescribed “neutrality” rules out both “cooperation” (collusion, in this instance) and “competition” (manipulation) with either or both of the other two parties.

Put simply, a “dual agent” cannot ethically be a “double agent” (in the spy-game sense).

However, should an agent (in any industry) make disallowed recommendations to one or both sides, or divulge, to one party, confidential information entrusted by the other, the illicit strategy adopted by the agent would be virtually identical to that used by the pocket gopher.

This boils down to that agent’s cooperating and competing with at least one of the other two unsuspecting players, as a means of maximizing his own “survival odds”.

In particular, that prohibited strategy would carry very high personal risks and rewards, just as the gopher warning does.

(In the case of humans, as with gophers, not knowing one is being “played” vastly increases the odds of success for the gopher strategy being used on oneself.)

Working within the professional code of ethics, what a reputable agent will in fact do in double-ending a deal is to remain neutral—and thereby neither compete nor cooperate with either side’s agenda, while nonetheless in some instances.e.g., in real estate, doubling his payoff, for example, as commission.

In terms a pocket gopher would understand, this would be almost exactly like redirecting hawks to rabbit holes, since the key players—the signaling gopher, the other gophers and the hawk all win (at the expense, however, of some unfortunate rabbit as a “bio-economic externality”).

To the extent that there is any disallowed attempt to influence negotiation, an unscrupulous “double-ending” agent in any industry is ostensibly seeking a negotiated middle ground for a candidate’s salary, a home price, etc., and therefore is, unlike a neutral agent, an aggressively intervening deceptively “harmonizing” player.

However, in urging one or both parties to compromise, and to be as realistic or accommodating as possible, the agent is creating a conflict of interests (namely, a collision between his representations of the interests of the buyer and the seller, and, therefore, of his own, since he represents both).

Unfortunately, it may happen that a job candidate, a real estate buyer, etc., may doubt the neutrality of an agent, and suspect a manipulative gopher strategy or worse is being played, despite the utmost efforts of the agent to perform in a neutral way.

This can happen when the employer-agent or seller-agent relationship antedates the candidate or buyer relationship with the agent (even if the relationship is a “limited dual agency” arrangement that has safeguards).

Commenting on how such pre-existing “attached agency relationships” are handled in real estate, e.g., when the seller is the agent’s uncle, Menno van Driel, a Royal LePage agent in Gibsons, B.C., said, “The principle here is that neutrality can be challenged later on. One party could feel disadvantaged. The doctrine of ‘what-would-an-independent-judge-say’ therefore precludes any of these suspicious representations.”

When attempted, an “outlaw” double-end, “double-agent” strategy is just like a normal pocket gopher’s, except that the survival is financial, rather than directly literal or genetic.

For this reason, it may be useful to coin a new and comparable term to describe human agents who, for financial gain, adopt the pocket-gopher strategy.

“Pocketbook gopher”.


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Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).