Eight Mistakes Companies Make That Kill Cooperation

The holy grail for organisational leaders is a culture of cooperation. 

Cooperation must come before collaboration because people need to ‘want’ to work together towards an over-arching purpose or vision, before they can effectively work on a project together and solve a problem.

Companies with cooperation get the benefit of no wasted energy.  Everyone is heading in exactly the same direction.  Everyone is committed to the success of others and does whatever they can to support, care and compromise in order to move the right things forward at the right time. No different to a high-performing sports team, businesses perform at their best when their team is aligned with one common goal and working towards it together.

Cooperation is the only true way to build organisational resilience because it allows companies to innovate at speed, cope with change and ensure there is an environment for people to thrive.

It has proven however to be one of the hardest things to achieve for even the best companies in the world.  As a leader, you know you have cooperation because of how fast things move and because of the passionate and commitment you feel at all levels.  In this article, I will share eight of the mistakes I often see companies make that create barriers to effective cooperation in their teams.

Mistake 1: Lack of company-wide KPIs

In order to ensure company-wide cooperation it’s essential each department and team throughout the company are working towards one cause. Seems pretty obvious and leaders already strive for this.  However, an obstacle to cooperation is when there is no meaningful level of KPI accountability tied to the ‘whole company result.’

 For people to have clarity, ownership and focus, they require a balance between performance objectives that can be achieved within their circle of control and influence, as well as a meaningful portion that is attributed to the results of the whole company.  Without it, the catalyst for cooperating towards a common goal is diminished because the company has created a situation where team members believe they can be successful, even if the whole company has not succeeded.

 Be aware of any financial incentives you offer, as they might unintentionally penalise people financially for making sacrifices to support other departments on strategic goals.  The KPI and incentive structure needs to be clear and flexible enough to ensure that cooperating for what two people believe is the right thing to do by the whole company, does not result in one or both people have their financial benefits and performance assessment negatively impacted. It is a common barrier to true cooperation

Mistake 2: No meaningful behavioural accountability at senior and middle management

A mistake we often see companies make is focusing too heavily on performance and results, without also holding people accountable for their behaviour and contribution to the company culture. Performance today is defined as Results AND Behaviour. As I talked about in my recent article ‘Leaders, you’re at risk of facing your own cricket scandal’,  cultural behaviours that get gradually overlooked start to symbolise the true culture that leaders believe in. They can build over time and have a negative impact on company-wide cooperation.

Mistake 3: Overcomplicated policies and bureaucracy

Complex policy frameworks create anxiety about doing the wrong thing.  It also removes the opportunity for people to work through issues, challenges and points of impasse together, because they are restricted to following black and white protocols.  Multiple layers of review is a symbol of a lack of trust and is disempowering.  Companies also need to be mindful of a lot of middle office coordination and processes that aim to mitigate behavioural issues – ie when people aren’t working well together, let’s create a process and a person to be the mediator and coordinator. These policies and structures generally only serve to hinder cooperation and can act as a barrier for employees and managers to contribute as much as possible. Instead, aim to create policies that are simple and allows for grey areas of overlap and interdependence which are the best opportunities for cooperation to happen in real time.

Mistake 4: Internal competition

Inter-departmental challenges and leaderboards that celebrate internal rankings make it less appealing to help others succeed and cooperate with other teams, as doing so could force people to compromise their own rankings. Be wary of implementing anything that could unintentionally create an ‘us vs. them’ mentality between teams as this is not conducive to productivity and a culture of cooperation. Competition creates a Win-Lose mindset which destroys cooperation on issues that require the most amount of open sharing.

Mistake 5: Centrally directed collaboration

Centrally directed collaboration creates a dependency up the line for people to advise where collaboration is needed, and this ends up limiting people’s ability to look for ways to proactively help others. This can create a reactive approach at ground level and a mindset of it being about projects and tasks rather than ongoing support and care. 

Mistake 6: Not celebrating mistakes and failures

No celebration of mistakes and failures by managers in public forums or communication platforms can create a culture where people are scared of trying new things as they are too worried about how making a mistake might look.

Often our most valuable lessons come from mistakes and failures, so it’s important to create a culture where people feel comfortable opening up about their failures and how they can use them as an opportunity for growth. 

Mistake 7: Meetings are only focused on actions and tasks

While meetings about actions and tasks are needed in order to drive results and business outcomes, there also needs to be room for the informal relaxed check-in meetings where there is no agenda.

The purpose of these meetings is to give your team an opportunity to share their key challenges and ask others for support. There may not be a tangible outcome but these personal catch-ups will create greater trust, empathy, and awareness of the ways people can cooperate better and support one another.

Mistake 8: Rigid 12-month performance cycles

Performance cycles should be flexible and reviewed at a minimum on a quarterly basis to allow people to shift and adjust to changing needs and demands. A rigid performance cycle can impact cooperation because people are focused on driving their own plan rather than stepping out to help others with immediate problems or challenges.

Ultimately cooperation has the power to make or break your overall success as a business. If you want your team to act like a high-performance sports team you need to create an environment that allows them to do so.

For now, reflect on these question to determine what improvements you could implement to enhance cooperation:

  1. Do you have financial incentives or performance cycles in play that could be unintentionally discouraging people from collaborating with each other?
  2. Are multiple levels of approval potentially acting as a bottleneck for your team to drive forward outcomes?
  3. When was the last time you reflected on the lessons learned from a company mistake?


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