The Social Link
January 2012

The elevator doors open before you. You get in. You’re just about to press for your floor and, about 6 or seven metres away, you notice someone walking towards you, towards the elevator. You hold the doors open until the person gets in, then up to your designated floor. Unbeknownst to you, you have just triggered a series of small phenomenon that clearly illustrate the nature of the ‘social link’ and its extraordinary power.
First, the person you were waiting for had to hasten their step so they wouldn’t take up more of your time; then once this person was before you, they looked you straight in the eye (which is very rare for a stranger) and thanked you. This created a positive feeling for both of you, which will stay with you for some time. Then, the person you shared a few moments with will, in turn, be more likely to pay it forward, sharing some positive feelings with someone else, sharing a little humanity… Such is the principle of extended reciprocity, as explained by the sociologist Norbert Alter in his book “Donner et prendre. La coopération en enterprise” [Give and Take. Cooperation in Business].

Yes, of course. Cooperation in business. If this extended reciprocity has the power to appease our personal lives, why ignore its benefits in business? Norbert Alter is categorical: social builds economy. The social link. It would be misleading, he believes, to think that the success of a business depends only on well-advised executive decisions; commitment on the part of the people involved is also required, this social link that drives them to work a little harder and do a little more than the bare minimum.

By the way, during one of his classes, economist Stefano Zamagni was demonstrating the appeal of this well-known social link, which helps reduce transaction costs. These costs correspond to expenses inherent to commercial exchanges; the search for reliable partners for example, contract writing and ratification, making sure contract clauses are respected, etc. However, Zamagni observed that, in terms of cooperatives, the social link establishes a mutual trust, which requires much less paperwork. 

Zamagni also theorized about the extraordinary power of the social link in worker cooperatives: it triggers implicit knowledge, the kind of knowledge that is applied only if the employee is willing… however, use of this knowledge can have a huge impact on the company’s operations. For example, I may have personal knowledge or insight that is not necessarily required to perform my job, but would probably be very useful if I conveyed this knowledge to my teammates. Transmitting tacit knowledge depends entirely on the social link developed in the workplace - the pleasantness of the people I work with - which will either dissuade or inspire me to do a little more than what my basic job description requires.

The social link is certainly an asset in business. This is what allows for the development of vital extended reciprocity. This is what allows those who are gathered together in one company to provide each other with an exchange of services, bound and driven by a common vision, by the mutual desire to work together. Furthermore, when we presume that being connected falsifies data and removes any objectivity from such exchange of services, then we become ensnared in the economic model that rests on the principle that human beings are selfish and seek only their personal interest. This principle no longer applies, especially in light of recent work on behavioural economics.


Colette Lebel, agr.
Director Cooperative Affairs
and Board Secretary Assistant
La Coop fédérée
Fax: 514 850-2567


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