The Difference Between Cooperation and Collaboration

Published on
March 31, 2021
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The Difference Between Cooperation and Collaboration 

Let’s begin by asking: do your teams cooperate or collaborate? Cooperation and collaboration are two words we often hear when discussing teamwork.  They both put the emphasis on individuals working together and reflect the goals that any manager would want to find among team members.  But, is cooperation the same as collaboration? Confusing them is easy. However, mixing them up can make managing projects more challenging, not to mention that it will cost your organization wasted time and money.   

These times of separation are requiring accelerated collaboration which means that organizations are reinventing the workplace. Organizational pioneers from all parts of the world are building new kinds of organizations — more soulful workplaces, that unleash the entrepreneurial spirit of everyone, allowing for emergence of innovations at the edges of the organization. With that has come the increasing need to truly understand and assess the difference between cooperation and collaboration in our teamwork.


Merriam-Webster defines cooperation as the actions of someone who is being helpful by doing what is asked for: common effort.

The term “collaboration” derives from the Latin word com, which means together, and labōrāre, which means to work or labor. Merriam-Webster defines it as working jointly with others or together, especially in an intellectual endeavor.

Well-known organizational expert Ron Ashkenas' article, “There’s a difference between cooperation and collaboration,” presents case studies about managers in different departments who were able to get along, but weren’t able to come to a consensus on an effective way to work together. 

Imagine you’re customizing a product for a client. Managers from different teams work together to determine the requirements, and each team works on the customizations in their area. But, when some changes are implemented, it triggers adjustments for other teams – project deadlines can get extended and workload increases.

The above scenario is one of the examples Ron Ashkenas wrote about in the Harvard Business Review several years ago.  It simply reflects the difference between cooperation and collaboration and how easily they can be confused. In the example, every team is cooperating to customize the product, but they’re not collaborating, so their changes work when put together. The result is that they don’t reach their desired outcome – or they reach it a lot later, with a lot more work.

Ron concludes that the departmental managers “confused pleasant, cooperative behavior with collaboration.” True collaboration requires leaders to align their goals and to synchronize their strategies in order to achieve the necessary results.  

He suggests two approaches to strengthen collaboration: 

  1. Identify the goals that everyone is working towards, then map out the path to reach those goals. The map becomes a kind of collaboration contract, with everyone knowing what is expected.
  2. Convene a meeting of the stakeholders from all departments as soon as a map has been drawn and facilitate discussion and debate about how to collaborate until there is agreement on how to move forward. 

Ron’s message is to take care to avoid getting stuck in the kind of cooperative mindset that prevents you from having the kind of open, honest debate that leads to true collaboration.

Lynn Power, a leading advertising executive, offers this insight: acknowledging that collaboration takes much more work and is “inherently messy”, Power stresses that collaboration is easier when there is greater acceptance of diverse perspectives and offers the following questions to ask as you encourage team collaboration:

  • Is there a diversity of thought, background role, experience, etc. on this team?
  • Is there a hidden bias against different people's ideas?
  • Do you stretch your team’s ideas and encourage participation from everyone?
  • Are you recognizing each person’s time and contribution and giving credit?
  • Are you being clear about roles and expected outcomes?

Power believes that collaboration is a muscle that must be exercised and that the idea is to have collaboration embedded in the culture so that it serves as a competitive advantage.

According to Monica Eaton-Cardone, an author and industry thought leader, each culture needs to identify its preferred strategy. She offers 6 tips for building collaboration if that’s the best approach:

  1. Build teams around individual strengths.
  2. Encourage the collaborative spirit.
  3. Encourage open-mindedness.
  4. Reward innovation.
  5. Spread the delegation of tasks.
  6. Diversify.


Cultivating good communication skills is the fundamental foundation binding everything together in a team atmosphere. In business, we all need each other and can’t do it alone. A great example of that was Steve Jobs who needed Wozniak to accomplish his goals. Keep in mind, there are a few requirements to successfully communicate, cooperate and collaborate: trust, vulnerability and the ability to divide up the control.  

Studies have shown that collaborative teams are five times higher performing than cooperative teams, because they feel motivated towards the same goal. In a survey, 86 percent of executives believed that a lack of collaboration was a response for workplace failures.   

Effective collaboration requires you to communicate your goals, ideas and expectations as openly and transparently as possible, and to everyone involved.  

If you want to see your business prosper and thrive, then, there is no better time than the present moment to begin fostering a collaborative spirit among them. Help your teams to collaborate by having them think beyond their own individual team effort and appreciate the benefits of working in unity to achieve common goals. The above tips should give you a good understanding of the importance and the benefits of encouraging collaboration among your employees.


Ashkenas, R. There’s a difference between cooperation and collaboration. Harvard Business Review, April 20, 2015.

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