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The intriguing photo above depicts a colony of ants cooperating to achieve a goal.

If you’re an ant, you don’t cooperate because you’re kind or considerate; you do it instinctively to survive.

The same is true in higher species. Elephants nudge one another out of deep mud; wolves hunt as a pack; chimpanzees groom each other to reduce lice and disease.

I think about this often because promoting cooperative behavior is part of my life’s work.

Along with breathing, eating, sleeping, reproducing, feeling, and reasoning, the ancient, immutable job description for humans includes cooperating. From tribal kin groups to modern families and workplaces – we cooperate to survive and thrive.

The mandate of cooperation doesn’t mean we get along all the time.

Those same elephants, wolves, and chimps engage conflict when it’s necessary. Managing tension and disagreement – while energy-expensive – is also part of survival.

In a healthy family, partnership, or leadership team, there’s a time to cooperate and a time to tussle. Conflict doesn’t negate the need to cooperate. But how to know when each is appropriate?

That decision requires reasoning and discernment.

Not the automatic, emotional reactivity we are all familiar with.

Consider these examples:

A leader I’ll call Damian manages a department in a telecommunications company. Damian’s boss referred him to me because, in her words, “He’s meticulous with tasks, but doesn’t get along with other managers. There’s always an issue that leads to a conflict.”

Faced with conflict, Damian moves quickly to irritation and anger. Then he gets dogmatic and judgmental. At those times, his reasonableness goes underground.

When Damian is uncooperative, his go-to move is to push back and blame.

Joon, a CPA, has a different problem: “I like keeping the peace,” she told me.

At first blush, Joon’s easygoing nature and quick willingness to agree would seem to promote cooperation.

But that often doesn’t happen. Instead, people take advantage of her. Her two children are happy to let her clean up their messes. And at work, she struggles to set limits or say no.

Joon’s pattern is clear: She gives in to the point of sickness. Her silent suffering from skin rashes and migraines tells the story of one who cheerfully absorbs anxiety, and her health pays the price.

Damian and Joon express anxiety in different ways.

When it’s best to regulate irritation, Damian fights.

When cooperation calls for negotiation, Joon accommodates.

In both cases, discernment and poised thinking fly out the window.

Is there a better way?

Here are four principled ideas to consider if you want to cooperate:

1. “How important is it?“

If a goal is important to the group as a whole, members are more likely to achieve that goal through cooperation, rather than, say, by coercion, executive control, or power grabs.

If the goal is low in importance, it might not be worth the effort to cooperate.

For example, Damian might ask himself, “What’s more important in my department, attention to detail or respectful relationships? How does one affect the other?”

The key awareness here is to define the stakes to the group. “How important is it?”

2. “Agreement is optional, cooperation is mandatory.”

Cooperation doesn’t require consensus agreement.

Excessive politeness – pretending to agree when you don’t – undermines respectful cooperation. A particular danger is telling others what they want to hear.

Honest disagreement occupies an invaluable seat at the table of cooperation.

In Joon’s case, maybe she would come to the conclusion that playing it safe isn’t always helpful. And that she tends to confuse cooperation with “caving in.”

The important skills here are to hold steady in the face of disagreement, and to seek understanding about the other’s interests.

3. “Define your position to yourself”

You might have many interests, desires, and wishes, but what is your position? Your position is what you want or don’t want, what you will do or won’t do.

Knowing your position can both increase your incentive to cooperate and protect you from excessive accommodation.

Defining your position requires careful thought about the many options and consequences.

No one can dictate your position. That’s yours to figure out.

4. “To cooperate, negotiate.”

When a person, group, or society becomes anxious enough, they will revert to automatic reactions like anger, arrogance, or accommodation.

It’s better if you can step back and observe.

When you become aware of differing wants or disagreements in an interaction or decision process, the moment is ripe for negotiation.

Negotiating means a willingness to talk back and forth in a bargaining fashion that’s akin to price-haggling at a flea market. Each side decides what they are willing to give up or contribute in order to work towards a common outcome. That’s cooperation.

Stemming the flow of anxiety gives cooperation an excellent start. Negotiating and compromising make it work.

For the ants and for us, cooperation moves us forward.


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