Golden Balls-Up : Why hiding information can be a dangerous game

(c) iStockphoto.A recent international conference in higher education (NAFSA) gave a fascinating insight of the need to be totally open and honest when setting up collaborative projects. A couple of renowned business schools were attempting to create a club of fellow accredited schools.
One of these schools, following its own political agenda, had attempted to exclude all schools from its own country despite the fact that 10 business schools “qualified” for membership. Their plan so spectacularly backfired that you almost felt sorry for them. Almost.

Steal or Share?

Whether or not you are familiar with Game Theory, you might like to take three minutes to watch this highly entertaining video of a British television show entitled Golden Balls.*

Two contestants must decide whether they will share £100 000 and get £50 000 each or whether they will attempt to steal the entire pot of money but run the risk of losing everything.  It is quite fascinating watching their discussions before they decide what to do.

A number of my very bright students have pointed out that this should be an easy decision if standard economic principles are applied. By sharing you have a 50% chance of winning £50 000. If you try to steal you still have a 50% chance of winning, but twice the amount. The rational economic decision should therefore be to cheat.  In mathematical terms this is therefore the classic ‘no brainer’. True, but this logic ignores one crucial element; reputation and future trust.

NAFSA 2011 and an unexpected meeting

Last week, NAFSA held its 63rd annual conference in Vancouver.  This amazing conference brings together international educators from all over the world.  In one frenetic week, 10 000 people converge on some poor unsuspecting conference centre and in one mad week they attempt to cram in as many meetings as possible with their international partners. But without any doubt, the most interesting meeting was one towards the end of the conference that included a few uninvited guests.  And what a fascinating meeting it was. One wonders whether, like the Sex Pistols first concert in 1975 or The Beatles farewell adieu on the top of the Apple recording studio, years from now a handful of people will be boasting that they were there; they witnessed that meeting.

Even business schools can organize meetings that backfire

In fact, the idea was probably a worthy one. It was an attempt to bring together some of the world’s most accredited business schools to share best practices.  So far, so good.  However, most business leaders will tell you success depends not on the idea, but rather on the execution.  And the execution was a catastrophe. For some suicidal reason, one business school from a European capital decided it would attempt to exclude all other schools from its own country.  In game show terms, they tried to steal the entire pot.  Informed of this by irate partners across the globe, many of these schools then proceeded to gatecrash the meeting.

For the school that had attempted this coup d’état, the entire affair was a public relations disaster. Not only did it force them into a position of providing a spontaneous explanation that was as long winded as it was unconvincing, they also succeeded in offending the international partners they were trying to impress.  I saw a Canadian colleague overcome with cold fury. Her green eyes that normally sparkle when talking of international projects filled with icy indignation and she denounced the injustice of the system being proposed.  I witnessed body language from people from South America and all parts of Europe that was undoubtedly not lost in translation. “This is not what I signed up for,” protested one of my Asian colleagues. “This is not what I want to do. This is not what I am. My job is to include people, not to exclude them.”

Learning by chance

It is a sober lesson for us all and brings us back to the game show.  The point that standard economic misses is that in this modern world of international partnerships, internet and the so called global village where everyone knows everything about everyone else, trust becomes our key success factor.  Sure, we can cheat as we can in the game, but we can only get away with it once.  After that, we lose chance of being trusted by others and thus, the possibility to work with them.

A good friend of mine pointed out to me loyalty and kindness do not always pay in the short term. True, but they do pay in the long term as a person builds up their reputation. And in higher education people seem to have surprisingly long memories. This becomes increasingly important as we move away from what EuanSemple calls a shift from trusting corporate brands to believing in personal brands.  Increasingly in business transactions, we tend to think more in terms of dealing with individuals rather than a company as a whole.


I suspect that the meeting was a great lesson for all those involved.  Many people probably learned a great deal about deep rooted motivations of people that they only had a chance to work with on a more superficial level until then.  They learned to identify the people who will stand up and fight against injustice.  It was certainly my experience.

From South America to central Canada, across to Scotland and the English Midlands, then through Scandinavia and Europe and right out to Hong Kong and Western Australia, I was reminded of the high standards of honesty & trustworthiness to which many of my international partners abide.  These are the people who deserve my total confidence.  Of course, our responsibility then becomes to ensure that others can always trust us to the same degree.

*My thanks to one of my former students, Vita Spoka, for bringing this video to my attention during a lesson on Game Theory.

Mark Thomas

Grenoble EM

ESC Grenoble




Global Ed

International Affairs in Higher Education

Business School

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Filed under Business Schools, Game Theory, Higher Education, Strategy

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