What is the difference? Cooperate and collaborate

Job specifications refer to both of these terms. This reference may be in the context of team behaviour, interpersonal skills, or stakeholder management.

Cooperate has been in favour for many years.

Collaborate is a more recent addition to selection criteria language. So what’s the difference?

For starters, they are synonyms.

There is a subtle difference however.

When you cooperate with someone you work with them, help them, do what someone has asked or told you to do. And you do it without complaining or arguing.

Collaborate means to work together with 2 or more people to produce a piece of work. It’s a co-production.

Collaborate is particularly used in the context of whole-of-government contexts, or multi-agency contexts. In other words, to produce a result when multiple agencies are involved, all players must collaborate – work together to produce a result.

Being a cooperative member of a team can mean sharing information, offering help to others, working back to help out. However, you may not be working together with the other staff to produce something together.

While I might need to cooperate and collaborate with my team colleagues, collaboration becomes particularly important on more complex projects involving multiple sections, teams or agencies. For example, if I’m introducing a new computer system, I will need to collaborate and cooperate with many areas across an organisation. If I’m solving major issues, like global warming, then major collaboration is needed.

Collaboration is then, a higher order skill, demanding more than cooperation. To collaborate well I need to be able to:

  • Network
  • Build alliances and partnerships
  • Manage meaning
  • Negotiate
  • Persist
  • Overcome obstacles
  • Be flexible

Examples that demonstrate cooperation and collaboration:

  • Coached, trained or mentored team colleague
  • Alert colleagues to problems, ideas, opportunities
  • Consistently complete work asked to do
  • Help out colleagues in times of high pressure
  • Seek out like-minded people or organisations to form alliances
  • Actively build networks to share information
  • Work on projects where there are multiple players (not team colleagues) each making a contribution.

Questions that explore cooperative and collaborative behaviours:

  • How have you demonstrated cooperation within your team?
  • As a team leader, how have you fostered cooperation in your team?
  • This role involves stepping in to lead a new team. How will you foster cooperation in the team?
  • Give us an example that demonstrates your ability to collaborate to produce a result.
Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist® specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.