ENCOURAGING AND SUSTAINING COOPERATION
If you've ever worked in a public or private organization of any size you know the truth: cooperation and coordination are critical to execution. It is almost impossible to get anything important done without the assistance and joint efforts of others. Yet, despite the fact that there's little argument about the role coordination and cooperation play in the execution of plans and initiatives, it appears that they are elusive and difficult to attain.
Only 56% of the managers who participated in our execution gap survey responded favorably to the question, "Managers cooperate to achieve the objectives of the company rather than focusing on their own individual careers or work unit interests" and even fewer, 49%, responded favorably to "Decisions and actions are well coordinated across different work units and levels of management." If both are needed for success the question is why is it difficult to get people to work together toward the same goals?
Cooperating Versus Competing: the Human struggle
Are human beings naturally inclined to be cooperative or competitive? As with most matters of human behavior the answers aren't always clear cut. There is plenty of disagreement on the subject.
Economic and game theory point to our competitive nature and a propensity to put our own self-interest ahead of the wellbeing of the group. Of course, not everyone behaves the way economic and game theory models predict. In fact, there is evidence that people cooperate more often than theories of self-interest and maximizing personal benefit might suggest.
However, although there may be room for disagreement about whether cooperation or competition is our natural inclination, research on the strength of mutual cooperation and mutual competition shows that cooperation is much more fragile than competition. It seems that we are quicker to stop cooperating than we are to stop competing and it takes longer for us to forgive and trust those who have defected in order to resume cooperating. If you think about similar situations in your own life, you'll probably agree with this assessment.
Three Cooperation Builders
With self-interest and the fragility of cooperation working against you, encouraging and sustaining cooperation and collaboration with people you depend on to get things done is a daunting challenge. However, it is not an insurmountable one.
There are certain conditions that predict when cooperation is more likely to trump competition-namely, when communication is clear and there is transparency about intent, when people understand what they can expect from the other person and how they will work together, and when the interests of individuals or groups are aligned. Let's discuss how to create these conditions in your company.
Cooperation Builder #1: Improve Communication and Transparency
When we are given the chance to communicate our intent to cooperate, we can increase the likelihood the other person will respond in kind. This, of course, assumes that our communication is clear and our intentions are understood.
Here's an example that drives home the fact that we may not always be as clear as we think we are. During an operation a surgeon decided to lower the patient's blood pressure and tells the anesthesiologist to administer a drug to accomplish that objective. However, he did not tell the anesthesiologist why he was making the request.
The anesthesiologist's job is to maintain the patient's vital signs so naturally when he saw the blood pressure drop he administered a drug to get it back to normal. Upon seeing a rise in blood pressure the surgeon requested another does of the first drug. The anesthesiologist complied with the request and when he saw the pressure rise again he administered the drug to boost the pressure. Unfortunately, the lack of clear communication between the surgeon and the anesthesiologist went on until the patient died. (Klein, 1998)
In this situation both people were acting with good intent and doing what they thought was right, but because communication was poor they were unable to cooperate and coordinate their actions. One cause was that the surgeon made the mistake of assuming the other person was able to read her mind and understand what she wanted or intended. The lesson for business professionals is simple: don't make that assumption. Develop the habit of being explicit about why you are doing something or making a request.
The second mistake was that no one-not the surgeon or the anesthesiologist-bothered to do a "comprehension check." The anesthesiologist assumed he understood and did not repeat in his own words what the surgeon had said to ensure what they were thinking was what the other person intended. And the surgeon did not ask him to repeat back the directives.
The lesson is clear. Two simple actions-not assuming people know what you are thinking and paraphrasing to check for understanding-can go a long way toward making communication clear and transparent. These actions could have averted disaster in the scenario above, and they can help prevent communication-related missteps in your own company as well.
Cooperation Builder #2: Agree On When Cooperation Is Needed and What It Looks Like
Lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities is another cooperation-crusher. It results in conflicts among team members or departments. It also allows key responsibilities to "fall through the cracks" because each party believes that someone else is responsible for them. It seems our level of cooperation is generally higher when everyone involved agrees on when it's needed and what it looks like in these situations. When we know what to expect from other people we are more willing to trust them and take the risk of cooperation.
A tool to facilitate the clarification of roles is commonly referred to as the RACIN model. The tool, whose acronym stands for five levels of authority and involvement-Responsible, Approve, Consult, Inform, and Not Involved-enables individuals and teams to describe what cooperation and collaboration looks like for the most important decisions and activities for which they are responsible.
The team starts by listing the critical decisions and activities for with they are accountable and then discusses and reaches agreement on who has which role. The process takes time but it is well worth the investment. On their own, some teams may eventually come to an understanding about when and how to work together. That journey, however, takes much longer than a RACIN meeting and relationships and trust can be damaged along the way.
The reality is that when left to its own devices, the team is likely to never reach a sustained level of cooperation as its members repeatedly work through misunderstandings and conflicts. Formally and explicitly working out roles at the early stage of a team's formation, or whenever you notice a lack of cooperation and coordination, helps accelerate the process and preserve trust.
Cooperation Builder #3: Align Interests and Establish Common Ground
Shared goals increase cooperation and collaboration because they ensure everyone is working toward the same outcome. When the objectives of one person or group are at odds with the objectives of another, efficiency and reliability suffer.
Picture the potential conflicts and inefficiencies that would result if one group in your unit was working toward reducing costs, while another group was focused on bringing state-of-the-art products and services to market. These objectives can coexist, but it most likely won't happen on its own. To facilitate alignment between the two groups, you need to develop compatible and mutually supportive objectives in a thoughtful and explicit manner.
One approach is to develop a set of broader, collective objectives for a team or work unit, then review the task objectives for specific individuals or groups and ensure that they are consistent with and mutually supportive of the collective objectives.
Here's an example: to set the stage at the beginning of the year, the Chief Technology Officer of a large brokerage firm and his boss identify the ten critical objectives for the organization. These are goals that reflect its mission and are necessary for the overall success of the business enterprise. After the extended management team briefly reviews the goals, in-depth work is done to ensure that each will be accomplished.
Cross-functional teams discuss the goals in concurrent sessions to clarify, fine-tune, and determine what it will take to accomplish them, including key deliverables, help required, mileposts, key stakeholders, and so on. Following these discussions, the individual with primary accountability for a particular goal reports on the overall plan, identifies areas that require problem solving, and explains how progress and success will be monitored and communicated throughout the year.
After all the goals have been discussed, possible overlaps, synergies, trade-offs and barriers are highlighted and resolved. The process results in clarity among members of the extended team on priorities, resource allocation, and role expectations.
The Bottom Line
Organizations are complex structures with many interdependencies. We must rely on others to help get things done and meet our objectives, and that means cooperation and collaboration are often the key to our success. While there is evidence that human beings base our actions on self-interest in an effort to maximize personal benefit, ample evidence also supports the proposition that our natural inclination is toward cooperation. The challenge you face in the workplace is to ensure the conditions that create and sustain cooperation and collaboration are in place.
Cooperation and collaboration are facilitated by clear communication, shared goals and clearly defined roles. These conditions help encourage and motivate people to focus on the group's best interest without feeling that they are minimizing or trading off their own interests in the process. Once in place, however, cooperation is a delicate state. People will still have disagreements and different points of view about how and when things should happen. Your ability to effectively and constructively influence others and gain their support is critical to maintaining cooperation. The loss of cooperation is also caused by mistakes and miscommunication and it can be undermined if naturally occurring and healthy disagreements are not well managed.
We do know that when you act in a cooperative manner it causes others to reciprocate with cooperation. What it often comes down to is a willingness to break the cycle of competition with one person or group taking the risk of the first step.
Klein, G. Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1998.