Cordiality and mutually beneficial arrangements can be more important than hard-negotiated deals when it comes to cementing strong working relationships among supply chain partners, according to a recent issue of Management Science, a journal of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS).

In “Social Preferences and Supply Chain Performance: An Experimental Study,” Christoph H. Loch of INSEAD and Yaozhong Wu of the National University of Singapore Business School observed that people's actions in economic transactions are motivated by more than incentives. Incentives can cause people to be calculating rather than oriented toward a win-win, say the authors. Behavior is also influenced emotionally by social preferences. In particular, people care about status (“How much do I have relative to you?”) and reciprocity (“If you were nice to me, I want to reciprocate; if you were not nice, I want to retaliate”).

In their paper, the authors report results from an experiment in which human subjects repeatedly interact in a supply chain situation facing price-sensitive demand. They find that social preferences have a significant impact on the decisions of supply chain partners: When status considerations matter, the partners act more competitively, trying to out-do the other side, even at times damaging their own profits. If reciprocity considerations are important, the partners can start a “virtuous cycle” of establishing a pattern of win-win actions, sustained over time.

From a practice perspective, write the authors, their results imply that managers should not rely solely on financial incentives. Formal incentives for collaboration become more robust when emotionally supported by relationships.

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