Why leadership needs to reinvent employee engagement

There is a lot of focus on collaboration in business today but what about cooperation? Is this not also very beneficial to a business? So what is the difference and why does it matter?

There terms are often seen as meaning similar things but in reality they represent very different ways in which individuals can contribute to a team.

When people collaborate, they work together to deliver a shared outcome, where everyone has the same goals as each other.

Like a rowing crew, every member of the team is working to fulfill a common objective and that is to win the race. It is difficult to discern individual performance and therefore success is focused on a team outcome. The same analogy could be applied to an orchestra.

When people cooperate, they work together to help each other achieve their own individual goals.

When cooperating there is a different dynamic. Individual team members will have their own selfish goals but they still need the support of their colleagues to succeed. It very much follows the adage of “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”. It is far more spontaneous and creates a level of fluidity and agility, as it is easier for the individual to pivot, experiment and innovate as they alone are responsible for the outcome.

However, doing business has become increasingly complex with larger markets, more demanding customers, more regulation, more channels to market, media fragmentation, enhanced customer choices, increased competition, richer and more advanced products and a rapidly changing market environment.

The response from organizations to address this ever-growing complexity is to create more collaborative working environments. Environments that require systems and processes of increasing complexity. In the words of Yves Morieux of Boston Consulting Group:

“More procedures, processes, layers, structures, and scorecards. More time spent managing work… and less time actually doing it; you work harder — at meetings and e-mails — but you’re not adding value.”

If you need evidence of how complex business has now become, Yves goes on to highlight that:

“In 1955, businesses typically committed to between four and seven performance imperatives. Today they commit to between 25 and 40.

The BCG Complexity Index shows complexity has gone up sixfold since 1955.

In the top 20 percent of complicated organizations, managers spend…

  • More than 40 percent of their time writing reports
  • Between 30 and 60 percent of their total work hours in coordination meetings

The BCG Institute for Organization shows that the number of procedures goes up 6.7 percent a year. That’s a 35-fold increase over the 55 years we studied.”

But today traditional business is being disrupted at a very fast rate. Digital disruption has been one cause but it is also a result of very complex systems and processes coupled with a management style that is difficult to adapt and slow to change. This makes any business prone to disruption through new innovative business models and value propositions.

There is one other factor that has infected business and is at the other end of the collaboration continuum. This is the way that businesses create internal competition and focus on recognizing and rewarding only the best performing colleagues. This creates a real reason for employees not to cooperate and to help each other. This is best summed up by Margaret Heffernan in her TED talk “Why it’s time to forget the pecking order at work”.

“Organizations are often run according to “the superchicken model,” where the value is placed on star employees who outperform others. And yet, this isn’t what drives the most high-achieving teams. Business leader Margaret Heffernan observes that it is social cohesion — built every coffee break, every time one team member asks another for help — that leads over time to great results. It’s a radical rethink of what drives us to do our best work, and what it means to be a leader.”

So taking the superchicken model at one end and the cumbersome, complex collaborative model at the other end, doesn’t it make a strong case for businesses to become more cooperative in nature? Perhaps the following should be considered:


  • Help colleagues to get to know each other through get-togethers and informal events
  • Build profiles of key skills, passions and interests of all team members and share
  • Encourage team members to respect the working day, colleagues who work too many hours are less likely to find time to cooperate
  • Introduce technology that can help individuals build strong connections. Take a look at Sococo that provides a solution that really promotes and supports cooperative working


  • Promote spontaneous interaction by discouraging email and update meetings
  • Establish a core period (one hour) every day when team members are encouraged not to book formal meetings so spontaneous interaction and cooperative working is encouraged
  • Drop-in on your colleagues whenever you can rather than applying formal reporting processes
  • Provide well considered induction programs for new employees to ensure they can build strong bonds quickly with their colleagues
  • Use Audio/Video as it is more intimate — being able to read facial expressions and body language has been proven to improve clarity of communication and cooperation


  • Commit to information transparency at all levels
  • Provide real-time dashboards to help keep everyone appraised on all team activities and company performance
  • Enable team members to post questions for other colleagues to see and respond to when they feel they can contribute


· Establish an ideas bank which everyone can contribute to and where individuals can adopt ideas for testing out themselves

· Give employees a couple of hours a week to focus on their own innovative ideas and try to make sure they use it


  • Recognize everyone who has contributed to successful outcomes rather than singling out individuals

The benefits of increased cooperation will lead to better team awareness and familiarity. This will ensure that there is better utilization of talent and enhanced knowledge flow amongst team members. This greater inclusiveness will encourage the contribution of more ideas, resulting in improved innovation, creativity and ultimately, the delivery of better outcomes.

Businesses need to ensure that both cooperation and collaboration can exist within their organizational structures, without compromising the significant benefits of cooperative working. For cooperation to succeed it is about creating the right environment and culture for self-organizing, networked teams to evolve and develop without hindrance. It about creating a community that can work seamlessly together without the potential source of conflict that gets created with overt rules, processes, authority and power imbalance. If you are able to do this, then innovation and creativity will flourish at a speed that was not considered possible before.

Talent amplification achieved through successful team cooperation.

Authors Cliff Pollan and David Newberry

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