Cooperation

A friend of mine named Robert grew up in Akron, Ohio, the tire capital of the western hemisphere. He surprised his family by going into computer programming rather than manufacturing. He surprised them even more by then quitting his programming job and going back to school.

His father was appalled. "You have a great job. You have benefits. You have a family! Why on earth would you quit?" Robert responded,"Because / don't like my job." His father couldn't grasp this at all. "So what!" he responded. " Nobody likes their job!"

Fast forward to today, after democratization of the workplace by greater inclusion and diversity, the adoption of Asian and European management philosophies that involve workers in management decisions, and countless management books that demonstrate the power of teamwork.


Now 'job satisfaction" is considered a normal metric for evaluating our work and our workplaces. In more enlightened workplaces, people really do feel satisfied. One ingredient is something so basic it's often overlooked: cooperation.

When any two or more people cooperate to achieve something they each want, their interpersonal dynamic changes. They become allies. They are giving, contributing, and creating value for something larger than their own interest.

Two powerful results ensue. First, people experience others from a perspective of being aligned rather than the more typical perspective of seeing others as different, and this enhances their emotional experience of working for the team and the company.

Second, the satisfaction in the result is, quite often, higher than it would be for a solo achievement of similar quality. Why is that? Because humans are wired for connection. Our brain chemistry both stimulates us toward, and rewards us for, bonding with others.

This is why one of the hallmarks of thriving workplaces is constant coopera­tion within and across departments. It makes people actually like their jobs more.


Cooperation is a big factor behind the rapid success of supposedly high-tech phenomena such as open-source IT and crowd-sourcing. Once the techno-logical and financial platforms were developed so that people any­where could come together for a common cause, the latent human pull toward cooperation took over.


Programmers all over the world are constantly cooperating to improve the open-source computer operating systems the world increasingly runs on, and countless people who have never met are joining together to fund businesses ,projects, or people they want to succeed.

They're not doing this because they know or like the other people involved. They're doing it because cooperation gets bigger, happier results than people could get on their own.

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Willingness to cooperate is also one of the explanations for how business models like Uber and Airbnb can succeed. These businesses have no managers "on the floor" because there is no floor.

There is no one supervising the transactions taking place, because you would need millions of supervisors on every curb in every city with Uber or Lyft or Grab. These models absolutely depend on total strangers cooperating to follow the rules and make the modelwork.

The question for leaders is how to employ and expand the synergistic effect of cooperation for their own organizations.


One of my favorite examples is Dee Hock. In his book "One From Many" he describes the series of coincidences that led him and his team to invent the business model and lead the company now known as Visa. He also describes the decentralized, non-rigid organizational structures his team utilized to make rapid adjustments and remain nimble.

This approach increased the speed of decision-making and helped reduce costs at a time when Visa was in a heated competition with MasterCard and other credit card issuers.


A more recent example comes from the online shoe purveyor Zappos, foundedand led by non-traditional serial entrepreneur Tony Hsieh. Zappos in 2014 adopted an "operating system" for the company known as holacracy. In this model the workplace is organized around tasks. Instead of departments with a manager and employees, tasks have teams that cooperate with each other. All employees know their team's purpose, and the company's purpose.

If they see a way to advance their team's purpose, particularly in relationship to another task/team, they don't have to go up five levels of management for approval. They talk among themselves, make the adjustment, and keep going. Similarly, if anyone sees something going out of alignment with a known purpose, they speak up.

You don't need a visionary CEO to make cooperation more central to your model. In the Netherlands, the medical system used to send nurses into people's homes to give shots and medications, check on their wellbeing, and so on. Different nurses came to see patients for different tasks, which required a large, expensive bureaucracy to keep track of all the nurses, patients and procedures.


In 2006 the country adopted a new model of cooperative neighborhood care. Teams of 10 to 12 nurses with different skillsets collaborate on the health of an entire neighborhood.

All the nurses are managers, and they cooperate to govern their own team. Under this model overhead costs dropped into the single digits, and quality of care shot up. Patients and families were far happier, while helping the Netherlands dramatically lower its healthcare costs.

New models like this are being developed and introduced all the time. The common thread is increasing the level of cooperation we have with each other and the communities around us.

The entire B Corp/Benefit Corporation movement changes the legal purpose of corporations from solely profit to both profit and positive social impact. Achieving both at the same time requires a far greater level of cooperation with community-based organizations than any conventional business.


This is not to say that replacing conventional command-and-control management with cooperative self-management is the solution for every business, or that it will be easy for the businesses that adopt it. Technology, society, and the economy are all evolving rapidly during this era. We have multiple generations in the workforce at the same time, with more diversity than at any time in history.

So the social cohesion that companies used to have - lots of people who looked like each other, came from similar backgrounds, and thought the same way - is greatly reduced. This actually makes cooperation more challenging.

Yet these challenges can be successfully overcome by leaders who create an environment where cooperation feels natural rather than foreign.

The techniques and perspectives we explore in this blog - understanding how emotions drive behavior, giving employees an experience of emotional safety communicating trust - all create fertile ground for cooperation among people on a team.

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In the end, every type of organization depends on cooperation at some level. In an evolving workplace, the level of trust and emotional safety is relatively high so cooperation comes naturally, to the point of becoming self-perpetuating.

Laying the foundation for high levels of cooperation makes people happier in their jobs, which if nothing else makes retaining them much easier. At a time when many employers say they cannot find enough good people, that becomes a competitive advantage.