To Cooperate or To Collaborate? That is the Question.

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The concept of  “Happier employees = more productive employees” has become more popular over the years. Companies are constantly looking for ways to prioritize personal relations between employees, enjoyable teamwork, extracurricular activities, etc. Today, slogans such as “we need to cooperate!” and “let’s start collaborating!” are more common than ever.

Some managers reinforce the idea of cooperative motivation, and others believe that collaboration is the key to success. These two statements, while people may use them as synonyms, are substantially different.

Defining Cooperation

Most companies believe cooperation encourages all employees and partners to do their best to contribute to a common goal but it is not the case.  A good example of this is the video game creation process. Multiple studios cooperate to create a quality product that will appeal to the public and generate revenue. Throughout the process, many obstacles will occur: disagreements between teams, end of partnerships, individual struggles, etc. However, after years of difficult teamwork, a video game is created. It’s beautiful, it’s creative, and it’s not perfect, but ready to be sold and make profits.

Defining Collaboration

To understand collaboration, think about an ant colony. Ants all work together as one organism towards the same goals – survival, the queen’s protection, and growth. Ants do not spend time counting the leaves their teammates have brought, they do not supervise.  They just bring as many as they can and believe that others will do the same. They protect their home, without hesitation, in case of an attack. In this case, similarly to gathering food, they do not wait for someone to go first. They will give their all, all at once, with the certitude that the others are doing the same thing.

The Big Difference

The big difference between the two situations is the amount of trust that humans and non-humans have in each other. To go back to the example, even if the studios know that they cannot make a video game alone, they do not necessarily trust that other teams, working with them, will put as much effort into this project as they do for other ones.

The same rule applies in every situation where two or more people are involved.

Let’s take another example. Imagine that your colleague at work comes to you with a favor. What will be your reaction? Will you be thinking to yourself: “Why can’t he (or she) do it?”, “What do I have from it?”, “What does it represent to me?”  If so you might be tempted to bargain by asking that person for a favor in exchange. You might even see that approach as uncomfortable and mention it to your manager in your next “One on One” by explaining how your colleague is not doing what he or she is supposed to do.

This behavior does not mean that you are not capable of completing the job in question, nor that you want your colleague’s position. This behavior simply arises because most of us, working in a cooperating environment, do not trust that others do their best at completing a certain task, we assume they do not want to do it when sometimes, unfortunately, the case is they actually cannot do it. ,

And why is there such an issue around trust? Because it makes us vulnerable. If you trust that the other person will do their part, but they don’t, you pretty much end up feeling foolish or used.

So how do we, as a company, acquire/give trust from/to others?

What can we do about it?

Interpersonal relationships are the first and most important step. People need to get to know each other, understand each other’s background, know what people like and why, etc. When this knowledge is established, people can easily assess why a person acts a certain way. For example, if you know that your colleague is asking you for a favor ONLY because, on that particular evening, he is going to propose to his loved one, and he would like to leave the office early, will you still question the favor?

Establishing collaborative behavior means encouraging employees to get to know each other on a deeper level than small talk. It means applying a mindset that everyone, in your company, is doing their best work. For example, it’s not because the marketing department got a $10M budget to spend that the finance department has failed in its mission to control profitability. The ultimate intention of the collaborative approach is to generate thoughts that this $10M will help the entire company make more revenue and maintain happier customers.

In the end, a company has specific goals and everyone in the company is expected to contribute to them from the secretary, who receives and redirects calls, to the CEO, who has the final word on the $10M budget. The understanding of this and the trust that others understand it as well (in the same way) and are doing their best is what makes a difference between a video game studio and an ant colony in the modern world.

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