When to Cooperate, and When to Collaborate

There's a subtle but important difference between "cooperate" and "collaborate." Knowing that difference can help you build and lead a stronger team.I heard a talk last week at a company conference by a guy who built much of his talk around the distinction between the words “cooperate” and “collaborate.” His point was that the concept of collaboration was a few steps beyond the concept of cooperation. His use of the terms was that when people cooperate they do the bare minimum to work together. But when they collaborate, they completely align, and willingly work together for a greater good.

So while I was listening to him, I looked up the two terms on Dictionary.com. And here is what I found:

Cooperate: verb, to work or act together jointly and willingly, for a common purpose of benefit.

Collaborate: verb, to work, one with another, willingly; to cooperate, as on a literary work.

The terms are defined almost identically. And in fact, many sources list them as synonyms for each other. So over the next week, I informally polled about 20 participants in our workshops, and asked them if they thought there was a difference between the two. The result was almost unanimous. Every respondent, except for one, thought that the verb “cooperate” implied a level of working together, but not willingly. Cooperation implied doing the bare minimum. “Cooperating with authorities” was an anecdotal phrase mentioned by several of them.

Collaboration, on the other hand, was perceived by the respondents to mean something far better than cooperation. Collaboration meant that the people were truly working together, and in full alignment.

This was fascinating to me, and the speaker’s use of the terms was consistent with the common perception, based on my informal poll. But the common perception was very different from the exact definitions of the term.

So, for the last couple of days, I have been thinking about, and asking myself… do I cooperate with people? Or do I collaborate with people? Sometimes do I one vs. the other? And how are my behaviors different?

And the answer I kept coming back to was this… there are times when I do the base minimum, to deliver what someone has asked for. I don’t roadblock them, I give them what they ask for. Nothing more. Call that cooperation, call it whatever you want.

And then there are other times when I go far beyond the bare minimum, and I commit myself to the outcome, not just delivering what was asked for. Call this collaboration, or again, whatever you want.

Most of us don’t have the bandwidth to collaborate on everything that comes our way. But this, perhaps academic exercise of defining two like words, has made me reflect on the right time to cooperate and the right time to collaborate. Regardless of the dictionary definitions, in the business world, at least according to one informal, unscientific poll, (and one conference presenter) there is a big difference between the two. And based on this mini revelation, I am going to continue to reflect on this.

Have a great day.

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