The Spirit of Cooperation

The Spirit of Cooperation

I remember when I was formally introduced to the spirit of cooperation. The notion was that people do not do their work because they “have” to but rather because they want to cooperate. Think about it…if it is my job to make the coffee every morning – it’s in my job description and I’ve signed off on my job description – but I refuse or stop making coffee every morning, what’s likely to happen? The members of the group might try to pressure or influence me, but the reality is no one can make me do anything! (Did the young you ever say to a sibling “You can’t make me!”)

Once I accept that no one can make me do anything – paid or unpaid work – and then I realized I alone must decide what will influence my decisions, what I will respond to. I have to decide what kind of person am I, what I want to be known for, who and what is important to me, what I believe.

Is cooperation important to me? Do I want to put your needs or the collective’s needs before my needs on occasion? Why would I choose that? When does this make sense to me?

One of challenges in every relationship is the timing of the “ask” for cooperation. I may want to cooperate with you fully but right now I am fully focused on my own work. If I take time out to cooperate with you I will lose that focus and/or lose the opportunity to complete my work on a timely basis. My needs are as important as yours. If you are my supervisor, do your needs always trump mine? Again, in the true sense of teamwork, my supervisor’s needs may be the team’s needs or they may be theirs entirely.  My work may be the team’s work or it may be my work entirely. In the perfect world we would take the time to figure this entire issue out and determine whose work has priority. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, ice cream is melting and you want my help now. Please don’t presume that I am being selfish or lazy when I refuse to cooperate and help you immediately.

The funny thing is that while I want to decide for myself when I will cooperate, the spirit of cooperation is what I hope every one of my co-workers brings to the table. I want you to be generous with your time and talents, when I need you to be. I want you to gift me when I need your gift, without me having to go without or do it myself. And I want you to say yes and mean it. Better yet, I really want you to read my mind and offer to do it so I don’t have to ask. I want you to always scanning the horizon, looking for ways to help me. I want you to be happy to help me. I want you to do it with a smile. I want you to do it without wondering what’s in it for you. How self-centred is that? How foreign is this concept to you? Do we all feel this way? At times, probably yes.

Cooperation is important to me. I do believe that when the strong help the weak, we all become stronger. I have witnessed the synergy of one plus one equaling three – when we band together and work cooperatively, we are smarter and stronger and more successful. We do indeed need each other; I am energized by my environment, by other people.

Imagine asking a co-worker to help you with a task and they refuse. Imagine the time and energy that would be wasted if you had to get out the carrot, the stick or the stroke every time you needed someone’s cooperation. It is so much easier to presume you are going to have that cooperation freely given. It is with the spirit of cooperation that most of our work gets done.

The spirit of cooperation is alive and well in high functioning teams. Teams share a common purpose and they insist that their team members commit to achieving this purpose.  I think this is where we drop the ball in organizations. Without a clear goal or purpose (a vision and/or mission), new employees are hired. They want a job and the organization wants the work done. There is often very little time and energy directed to the employee’s on-boarding or orientation to the new organization. New employees are not asked about their commitment to the organization’s purpose, or their commitment to the spirit of cooperation with their co-workers. We presume it’s there. We’re surprised when it isn’t or when it diminishes over time.

How do employees know with clarity what their employment is all about, other than working at their responsibilities (the what) for a pay cheque? So seldom do we talk about the how of their work, how they get the work done.

We all need to be reminded that my success is the team’s success and the team’s success is mine. The solution is to realize how special and precarious the spirit of cooperation is. As a group of employees, we need to publicly and overtly define the spirit of cooperation. We need to talk about what that means, what that looks like in the halls so that we have clarity and common understanding.  We need to commit to cooperate with co-workers and agree to leave the organization when you no longer want to cooperate. This could be the solution.

But then it is easier for me to cooperate with you when I know that what you are asking for is something that, as a member of the team, I am committed to. But what about when you, as my supervisor or my teammate, ask for my cooperation but it is outside the scope of the team’s work?  Is that when I get to weigh in on my needs versus your needs? Is there really three sides to this – my needs, our needs and your needs?  We would need to remind ourselves of the work that we want to see done, and get done, reminding ourselves of our personal and team values, mission and vision. All of this takes a great deal of self-awareness, as well as honest and open conversations with each other.

Would it be simple to have the conversation and agree to a certain level of cooperation, revisit and review on a regular basis and celebrate our success? And when a member of the team appears to no longer work in the spirit of cooperation or committed to the common goal for whatever reason, it is brought to their attention and they decide if this is how they want to continue or whether they can re-commit to working in the spirit of cooperation. If not, it means they leave the team, perhaps the organization. The spirit of cooperation could be part of the pledge that every employee takes when they are hired. They would fully understand what it is, its benefits to them and the organization and what must happen when they can no longer work in the spirit of cooperation with their team members. Would this work in your organization?

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