The Prepared Mind: Learning Cooperation

Driving results through others.

Posted Oct 25, 2019

This series of posts was developed by observing and synthesizing common questions from my clients as they encountered obstacles familiar to all of us—driving results with others. 

Everyone—from the CEO to the intern—learns on the job. It's one thing thinking through an effective process, but once people get involved and the pressures of deadlines and budgets are included, those processes aren’t actually felt. Effectiveness is an individual skill, first. Across every sector and every level of leadership, there is a common need to effectively work with others.

To perform well while under pressure, we need to train our minds to work more effectively. Making the right decisions, whether that is hashing out how artificial intelligence will evolve or ensuring naval ships are ready on time takes practice. I hope these very universal questions and practical answers provide the simple reminders we all need for how to get started with your own mind-training practice.


My organization touts itself as having a collaborative culture, but in reality, that collaboration is limited to the overall business goals I’m responsible for. I’m having a hard time driving cooperation across a team that is geographically, functionally, and demographically dispersed. How can I get them to rally around my cause?


While there are some people that will lend a hand no matter what, we tend to cooperate when we understand how the effort will benefit us.


Because the crew was convinced that I was “on their team” there were never any issues with negative criticism… You as a mentor have to establish that you are sincerely interested in the problems of the person you are mentoring. —Ret. Capt L. David Marquet, US Navy and author

Photo by Colin Michael
Source: Photo by Colin Michael

A choir has many voices. Many hands make like work. Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable. We hear these clichés and let out a frustrated sigh, knowing that we cannot accomplish what we need to alone—even though sometimes it would be easier.

Cooperating virtually is especially challenging because we are already working against barriers of distance, time cultural and language differences. Distance makes it especially hard to share values through regular interactions, impacting trust and team cohesion. There is the added challenge of establishing norms for communication and knowledge sharing and motivating team members to commit to the team/organization’s mission. Virtual teams have often had more of a short-term focus in comparison to their on-site counterparts—though this is starting to change, and fast!

Before we start to think the situation is stacked against us, note that the challenge begins with the task itself. The task is the source of goals, roles, and frames the exchanges that you will guide with the team. The task dictates the resources that should be involved. If the assembled resources lack the necessary skills, knowledge, ability, or budget to address the task, we will not be successful. But identifying the right people for the work at hand requires more than just understanding a person’s resume; it requires balancing professional chemistry and putting together the right mix of personalities. 

Whether we are focused on the short-term or the long-term, our team becomes a self-regulating entity. When chemistry and skills are well-matched, relationships are supportive. When they are not, everyone on the team turns into an obstacle in our way.

Membership to this team is governed by external and internal social codes. The former is linked to your political capital. If you have become known for not meeting deadlines or producing substandard work, fewer people will want to work with you. There is also a sense of obligation we have to our colleagues. How guilty do we feel at possibly others down? Do we have a desire to maintain positive working relationships, or are we all there to just “get it done”?

The answers to these questions, our truest answers, are why the relationships that people have with each other are important—especially over distance.

Our effectiveness as a team member or leader is reflective of the micro and macro politics of the organization to which we belong—as such, it is dynamic. It is driven by the context of the systems we are in. In order to grow and meet demands, the organization is constantly shifting, forcing us to adjust. Whether we are successful with our solutions depends on whether our processes are aligned with the tasks. It is limiting to assume that a single, unchanging process is all we will ever need.

That said, cooperation has many ingredients. How can we emphasize the need for and encourage greater cooperation? 

  • Advocate for the best fit of team members. This is especially true for remote team members. Take time to meet and speak with the people who have been nominated for the work and understand their strengths and passions firsthand. Describe the work, and if possible, speak with people who have attempted the work before. If the folks you have access to do not seem to be the right fit, discuss replacements with the project’s sponsor.
  • Establish norms and processes. We often go right past these tools only to find out later each member held unique assumptions about how the work would be managed. Whenever possible, set team processes that align with the tasks, ensuring that people have the tools necessary to complete their work.
  • Embrace ongoing, intentional communication. Report status. Celebrate wins. Highlight the work of individual team members. This breaks the isolation of the team and celebrates the things that do work.

Panel of Masters: Others Say It Best

You can't stay in your corner of the forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.  —A. A. Milne, English author

In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.  —Charles Darwin, English naturalist, geologist, and biologist

We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now. —Martin Luther King Jr., American Christian minister, and activist 

No matter what your mission is, have some notion in your head. Forget the model, whether it's government or nonprofit or profit. Ask yourself the more important question: Is my mission improving the world? Are you sure about it? Seek to disconfirm that all the time. And if you can, change your mission. —Jeff Bezos, American businessman, investor, and philanthropist

Developing Your Practice

  • Remember. It’s hard enough to cooperate when we work with people in person, let alone across various geographies. Distributed teams are becoming more and more prevalent, making our ability to develop and manage relationships that much more important.
  • Practice. Emphasize the need for cooperation by advocating for the best fit of team members, establish norms and processes, and be intentional about ongoing communication.
  • Connect. Talk to a friend or trusted colleague about how building and maintaining relationships have impacted your ability to do your work (whether you were co-located or distributed). What similarities were there in your approach? What differences? 
  • Reflect. If you keep a journal for your own development, write your thoughts about what you specifically do to maintain relationships once you’ve started them. Do you maintain them once you’ve adjourned on a project? How?


Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Goldsmith, M., & Reiter, M. (2007). What got you here won't get you there: How successful people become even more successful. New York, NY: Hyperion.