Collaboration and Co-operation: Meanings, Intentions, Actions

What is the difference between the meanings of these two words; what is different about people collaborating or people co-operating? And what are the assumptions behind the words?

Whilst I could bring in the dictionary definitions of these words, I thought I would take the opportunity to examine and make explicit my own understanding of them. Why? Because I realise that despite having spent many years developing my thinking, practice and tools for assisting people and organisations to engage usefully together, I have not taken the time to articulate what I see as the distinction between these two words. So, for me in my work as a coach and facilitator supporting others, I think it matters to be clear … or at least, be clearer. At first I am surprised (and yes, even a little shocked) that I have not already done this, but quickly I feel the surprise and shock turn to curiosity and excitement at the prospect of creating my own clarity to then be able to share this.

I don’t know about how you make sense of yourself, others and the world. I have a number of starting points – sometimes it comes from finding something in a book, in the media, online or in some interaction with others which then prompts me to reflect on myself, my life and how I am being in the world and what I can learn or change for the better; more often than not, it starts with experiencing something challenging in my own life and then trying to make sense of it. I might do this proactively by inwardly reflecting on what happened and how I reacted or responded; alternatively I might search for resources or wisdom from others to aid my sense-making; or something from the external environment might float into my consciousness and suddenly some understanding or awareness bursts through – a revelation, if you like!

The invitation from Karen at the 3rdi to write about these two words/ concepts fits more into the first scenario – life saying ‘pay attention’! What do these words mean to me and how do they play out in interactions? As I connect with the words, I realise that I do have two very different ‘felt’ senses/ experiences of what it means to collaborate and what it means to co-operate.

To me, collaboration is the enactment – the behavioural interaction that takes place when a group of people are passionately and fully united around a shared purpose and values base. People who are aligned in this way are more likely to commit wholeheartedly to doing what it takes to ensure success of their shared endeavour. Self-interest will be present for everyone, but the over-riding drivers come from something bigger than the needs and interests of each of the individuals. Collaboration suggests power shared, decision-making by consensus (in the true sense of the word), mutual commitment and mutual accountability. What we achieve depends on us all with no single person having greater authority over any other; we each must play our part for the whole to work. This does not mean that collaboration equates to success. We could collaborate on a flawed foundation and find ourselves failing! Collaboration is what is required if the intention is co-creation – from inception to completion.

In contrast, co-operation – as I experience it – requires far less unity at the deeper levels implied above. I suggest that the primary drivers that lead people to co-operate are more related to an individual’s needs and interests and less about sharing in a bigger purpose. When people co-operate, it is as if something is actually holding them back from an ‘all-in’ state of engagement. I co-operate while-ever it suits me. As an employee, I may co-operate so long as I get my wages and I am not taken advantage of in any way. I may continue to co-operate even if conditions are not great, if I consider that what I am getting is worth more than what might happen if I choose not to co-operate. Prisoners co-operate with the conditions of their internment – when they withdraw co-operation, an individual might go on hunger strike or collectively a riot breaks out. Someone else sets the conditions, rules of engagement and others are either invited, expected or required to comply.

Same or different?
If you were to observe two sets of people in action, would it be possible to discern if they were collaborating or co-operating? I’m asking this question as much of myself as of you. I think there would be times when you would be able to do detect a difference and times when you wouldn’t. I think the difference would be detectable not so much in the actions but in the conversations that set the actions in motion. Collaboration would show itself up through people talking more in the manner of ‘what we want to do/ create/ decide’ whereas in co-operation conversations I think we would be more likely to hear some people asking, inviting or enquiring of others in a more leading way – shall we do this? Will you take part in this? Or it may even come as an instruction … All suggesting they were setting the agenda, perhaps? I’m not sure … What do you think?

Better or worse?
There is a danger that in setting out my thinking, an assumption creeps in that ‘collaboration’ is more worthy and desirable than ‘co-operation’ – that there is a value-judgement apportioned to each term. Actually, I don’t believe there is a better or worse. I think there are times when both are desirable and valid – the crucial distinction to me is, what is the ‘fit-for-purpose’ level/ nature of engagement with the relevant stakeholders.

To discern this, we need to be clear about our purpose or intention; once we have this clarity we become better able to decide how best to engage with others, for that purpose to be achieved. If we are unaware of our purpose, we can find ourselves engaging with others inappropriately and ineffectively – which then sows the seeds for potential conflict, disappointment, break down of trust in relationships and failure in whatever endeavour we have embarked upon.

What’s in it for you; is in it for me!

Over the years in my consultancy practice, I have developed two unique tools in the fields of collaborative strategic planning and stakeholder engagement. These tools form one of the key foundations to my support of leaders and top-teams in making sense of their inter-personal and strategic leadership challenges. Interestingly and exciting for me, is that by my entering into this more explicit exploration of the terms ‘collaboration’ and ‘co-operation’, I have been able to articulate another level of clarity – which will find its way into my tools, into future scenarios in my life, work and relationships.

Now that’s cool!

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