It’s Not So Hard To Be A Little More Cooperative

To work with‘ – that’s really what cooperating means. Sounds easy, doesn’t it.

In research conducted for her book, Hot Spots: Why Some Teams, Workplaces, and Organizations Buzz With Energy: And Others Don’t, author Lynda Gratton summarized an environment that was effectively more cooperative as follows:

… the energy of the cooperative mindset comes not from a mindset of competition but rather from a mindset of excellence. The focus is on the excellence toward which people are striving together rather than the competition of beating everyone else to the goal.

A leader may work tirelessly to analyze, decide and deliver but if it’s being done in a competitive atmosphere, if the team feels as though it’s being less than cooperative, it is unlikely to produce the results long-term that we are seeking. It may stall your efforts to improve employee engagement which will ultimately stall levels of productivity and business improvements.

Let’s examine the game known as Prisoner’s Dilemma to further our argument about cooperating versus competing as well as being open and harmonious versus closed and hurtful.

Invented in 1950 by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dreshe at the RAND Corporation, the actual title ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ originated from Albert Tucker when he added specific prisoner sentences to the game. Prisoner’s Dilemma at its root is a game about cooperation versus competition. The intent of the game is to test how cooperative people really are against the backdrop of pressure, stress and options.

Imagine you’re a criminal and you and your associates (the game can be played with several players) were recently caught by law enforcement. You’ve been summoned in front of a judge who has issued a sentence to be served immediately. Due to unforeseen circumstances, there are no witnesses and no evidence, so the sentence issued is minimal, however, crown prosecutors want to ensure someone dearly pays for the alleged misdemeanor.

You’ve been offered a plea bargain; rat out your colleague and your sentence is reduced but your colleague has their own sentence multiplied by a factor of five. Of course, unbeknownst to you, the same offer is issued to each of your fellow accomplices. Hence, the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’; do you cooperate and altogether as a team receive the original sentence, or, do you take an easier way out leaving your colleagues to suffer?

What would you do?

Dilemmas surface all the time within the work environment for leaders. Prisoner’s Dilemma is a fictitious scenario but when pressed to hit a deadline, to cut costs, to increase production or to mitigate a negative business result, do you as a leader demonstrate a cooperating attitude with the team or, conversely, do you compete, throw team members under the proverbial bus, and take the plea bargain?

When the stresses of work pile up, will you cooperate or compete? Will your harmonious and open environment be destroyed by acts of fear driven by pressure resulting in a more competitive environment within your team than the intended way of being which is to be cooperating?

I recall a situation that occurred in one of the high tech companies I once worked for. For about a 10 to 15 year period, software companies killed several thousand trees and shipped a physical user and help guide in the box to accompany the software CD’s. Under Research & Development was a team that was tasked to develop said guides. In another part of the company sat a team that also killed several thousand trees through the creation of physical classroom training guides.

When it’s software, and particularly when there are end users in mind, the overlap of content between the user guide and the training guides is quite high. Through that 15 year period, step-by-step sequential instructions were all the rage. Both teams, however, had independent content management systems and processes. Repeated attempts to cooperate were made at various leadership levels, from content developers, to graphic designers, to Vice-Presidents.

In the end, the teams remained competitive as opposed to cooperative. Sure, they liked each other, but not enough to consolidate systems and develop content—through shared processes—cooperatively and in unison. They chose to punish each other rather than assist. Were the leaders being harmonious or was it hurtful?

Cooperating – it is literally ‘to work with’. We ought to be using it more within our teams, and across our organizations.


Dan Pontefract’s next book, THE PURPOSE EFFECT: Building Meaning in Yourself, Your Role and Your Organization, will publish May 10, 2016.


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One comment on “It’s Not So Hard To Be A Little More Cooperative”

  1. It really comes down to the organization culture and how they lead…are teams rewarded or individuals? Many times organizations talk about collaborating however, when you look at their actions (and whom they reward), you slowly realize that they are creating a competitive environment. How does the organization handle conflict? Are people assertive? Are they cooperative?

    If they are Assertive and Uncooperative – they are in a competing model. They promote their own agenda. This is a I win, You lose situation.
    If they are Assertive and Cooperative – they are in a collaborating model (meaning they want to explore what works for BOTH parties, hence the win-win situation). They promote their own agenda while ensuring that the other side also promotes their agenda.

    If they are Unassertive and Uncooperative – they are avoiding. They don’t deal with the conflict nor do they promote their own agenda. This is a lose-lose situation (and where the most un-engaged are).
    If they are Unassertive and Cooperative – they are accommodating. They give up their own agenda to preserve the relationship. Its I lose, they win.

    Of course there is the I give something up and they give something up, which is compromise! So they are not assertive as well as not cooperative. Each side has to give up something.

    In understanding the culture, look to how they negotiate to give you a sense of how they work with the other side. Leaders need to be cognizant of which models of conflict resolution they want to pursue and ensure that all rewards are aligned. Otherwise, you send mixed messages and nothing gets accomplished other than paying out all those rewards…and for what?

Hey! I'd love to read what you think. Surely you have an opinion. Love, Dan.