Workplace Cooperation


As a manager, I put a high value on cooperation and collaboration. I don't like unnecessary conflicts, or the stress that comes when employees are angry or yelling at each other. But some employees just seem to like to instigate and antagonize for no apparent reason.

Because of your temperament and circumstances, you place a high value on harmony. But if forced cooperation masks problems, it can create deeper issues.

Obviously, not everyone “plays well with others.” You want to talk openly with everyone so you can discover any simmering discontent. Then you'll be better positioned to let everyone know that cooperation is what you expect and require.

Here's an example. I once had a job hiring and managing mental-health clinicians for a big military contract. Their job was to go overseas and help military adolescent dependents with personal problems. I would interview the prospective employees, check references, assess their fitness for the specific work, and decide who could succeed in an overseas military environment.

Determining their clinical skills wasn't so hard. Figuring out whether they could succeed in the military culture, and on foreign soil at that, was a tougher call. But we got better at matching the person with the assignment and things went rather smoothly, except for one thing: If they didn't work well with the commander and the school principals, all was for naught.

It didn't matter how well the clinician worked with the kids and parents. If the principals didn't want the person on campus, and if the commander didn't want the person on the installation, the counselor would fail. And we had a few who inadvertently or intentionally alienated the principal or the commander and put us in a bind where we had to send them home — at considerable cost to them and us.

Then I changed our hiring policy. After we determined that the applicant was qualified, we would make a tough request. It was called “Cooperation or Else.” It went something like this:

“If we send you overseas, you must work cooperatively with the base commander and with the school principals. If one of them wants you fired, with good or bad reason, we will have to dismiss you — even if it isn't your fault. We can't afford to have any problems with these people, no matter what. Are you confident enough in your abilities to work with potentially very difficult people? We will provide suggestions and support, but there is little more we can do beyond that. We want you to understand that it is totally your responsibility to make sure that you have a good working relationship with the commander and the principal. If they tell us they can't work with you, we'll have to send you home. Are you still interested in taking the job under those conditions?”

What happened? Well, a handful told us they would not take the job under those terms. The rest said that they were so confident in their abilities to work with others, no matter how difficult, that they took the job. We never again had a problem with the principals or the commanders regarding our employees.

Here's the lesson: As a manager, you should never assume that every staff member values cooperation. Many do not — unless they are encouraged or taught to do so. Employees will rise to high expectations regarding cooperation if they are trained and told ahead of time that it is a very high priority.

Also, while we cannot control other people, if we are totally focused and committed to cooperation ourselves, it's amazing how beautifully it can come about —even under trying or unfair circumstances.

Art Bennett is director of Alpha Omega Clinic and Consultation Services (