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Collaboration vs cooperation: When to do one or the other (or both)

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Okay, let’s get the obvious out of the way, “collaboration” and “cooperation” are definitely two different words.

Yes, they both start with “co,” and they sort of mean the same thing, but they are not spelled the same, which, according to science, means they’re different.

That’s it. That’s the whole blog post. Knowledge is power.

No, no, come back, we’re kidding. We’ll tell you the (very real, and very useful-to-know) differences between collaboration and cooperation in this post.

First off, as a business owner, it’s important to know when it’s time for you to collaborate with your team—and when you need them to cooperate. These vary based on the situation, your team’s strengths and weaknesses, your own strengths and weaknesses, and what the end-goal looks like.

We’ll cover the differences between the concepts of collaboration and cooperation, where they are most impactful, and how you can think about them during your day-to-day work.

And, hey, you might even have a little fun along the way (sorry, no refunds if you don’t have fun).

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Collaboration vs. cooperation—who cares?

Great question.

In short, we’d argue that all business and team leaders should care because words are powerful, but also easily misused—and misusing words almost never leads to anything good.

We’ve all been in the position of reading something with the wrong tone or inflection, when the person writing it actually meant something different.

Really, though, knowing the difference between collaboration and cooperation is so important for business owners because there will be times when you are looking to your team for their creative input, and there will be times when your team will look to you for direction and final say. 

Ambiguous directions or using the wrong word can lead to less-than-ideal results, which means time wasted, more money spent, and more frustration for everyone.

On top of all that, if you’re a leader, it’s your responsibility to establish the most efficient and effective work environment. When it’s compromised, getting your employees to put their best self into their job becomes a challenge.

Key takeaway: It’s useful to understand the impact of using one over the other because it helps align your team and clarifies your expectations.

So, what’s the difference?


When you ask your team to collaborate, you’re really asking, “Hey, wanna work on this thing with me?”

When you ask your team to cooperate, you’re really saying, “I need you to do this thing the way I want.”

When we hear the word “cooperate,” we might think of the cop in The Fifth Element when he’s trying to arrest Milla Jovovich right before she leaps off the building and crashes through the roof of Bruce Willis’ taxi like 100 stories down. Not a scratch on her. 

Collaboration is like an equal partnership among team members, where everyone is working together, giving their input, running with ideas—each with a role that contributes to a shared goal.

Cooperation has a focus on an individual and their own goal—those who cooperate with them are helping them get to that goal, but they’re not owning that goal with them.

Still confusing? Yeah, we get it. (Honestly if they started with different letters, we really think that would clear up a lot of the confusion.)

Try this fun little table we made:



Teamwork Individual asking for help
Tasks divided among team members pretty equally Based on teammates’ (usually very specific) strength
Room for team member’s creativity Following the directions of the leader
Expectations are a little looser, since there are lots of personalities Expectations are clear and straightforward
What the cop from The Fifth Element did not ask for What the cop from The Fifth Element did ask for


When does it make sense to collaborate?

Collaboration will be the most beneficial for you and your team when a project needs multiple points of view and approaches. You have a goal, but it’s not set in stone, so you’re looking to explore as many avenues as possible. Here, you’re looking for effective teamwork.

You see these as great opportunities for letting your team really unpack a project or problem they need to solve, build good teamwork skills, feel free to make mistakes, build off of each other’s ideas, and push something as far as they think it can go.

And, bonus, when your team has that kind of freedom, they’ll feel more confident in their job and that you trust them to do that job correctly.

For example, pretend you’re brainstorming how you want to set up a booth for a conference coming up. You’ll be surrounded by a ton of competition, each trying to get the attention of conference goers, so you want to really stand out. You’ve been using the same backdrop every year, and the brochure you hand out is pretty out of date.

This could be a great opportunity to expand how you’ve normally marketed your company, so you’ll want some new points-of-view. And with your small team, there is a great dynamic between everyone and each person can bring a different perspective.

You invite your team to submit some ideas, and then you set up a time when you can review the submissions and really explore some new options. 

Your team thinks of a great idea, you present it at the conference, and it’s such a success, the event is renamed to celebrate your business, and you retire six months later.

What this might look like:

If you’re looking for collaboration, this could look like a group brainstorm meeting or some kind of open forum where everyone can add their input. You could have a document where everyone can add their ideas to, or even invite input in a chat box while you’re on a video meeting with your team. Some video conferencing tools come with this handy feature built in, like RingCentral Video, for instance:

Chat box in RingCentral Video

Key takeaway:

Looking for new ways of thinking, getting your team involved and excited? Get ‘em collaborating!

When does it make sense to cooperate?

As you’re aware, you are not your employee’s friend first—you are their boss first. And that means sometimes you aren’t looking for their input, you’re looking for their cooperation.

We’re not saying you can’t say good morning or ask them how their weekend was, we mean that when it comes time to get something done, you want them to respect and understand your leadership.

Let’s say you have a meeting coming up for a potential client. And this isn’t the first meeting where you pitch all about your company operates and what kind of services you provide, and how you can help them increase sales, bring in new clients, and save a ton of money, too. This is where they want to see specific ways you will help their business. They want to know that you understand their business, and that you are dedicated to helping them.

And, just for fun, let’s say they gave you a 24-hour turnaround time.

You know your business inside and out, so you know exactly how you can help this potential client. You know your goal.

You reach out to your team and ask for research and statistics on the potential client’s industry, maybe ask a designer to mock up a presentation that you can fill in, and work closely with a marketing team member to figure out the perfect way to say what you want to say.

Again, you know your goal, and you need help getting there. And since your team trusts your leadership, they are ready to help.

What this might look like:

Let your team know in a message or call what is required of them. If you have a project or task management tool, use that to assign tasks directly to your team. For example, RingCentral’s desktop and mobile app lets you both start video conferences and do a little task management too:

task management in RingCentral's cloud collaboration solution

Key takeaway:

You see the goal and know the path—you just need a few extra hands to get there.

How can I be more strategic with my team?

First off, you know your business and your team.

The best thing you can do for your team is know when it’s time to let them explore and challenge your business, and know when it’s time to lead them. Here are a few examples of questions you can ask if you want to figure out if this is the time for collaboration or cooperation:

  • Urgency: How urgent is this task or decision? The less time you have, the more likely you’re going to have to make an executive decision and ask for cooperation
  • Size of team involved: The larger number of people involved, the harder it is to come to a consensus. If it’s a small group of two or three, you can afford to ask for collaboration—but if you’ve got 20 or 30 in the room, cooperation is probably your best bet
  • Your own ability: Be honest—are you an expert on this topic? If you need to lean on the expertise of your teammates, then collaboration is probably the way to go here

When you collaborate with your team or let them collaborate with each other, expect to see new possibilities (and some not-so-possible possibilities), where they uncover opportunities for growth, sometimes ones you might have overlooked.

And when you ask your team to cooperate, you’re letting them know that you are their leader, you are the expert, you are going to take them to the end, and you need their help. You love their input and always want them to question if things can be done differently, but you want to save that drive for the moments that allow it.

So… collaboration or cooperation?

We hope you gained some knowledge on how you can collaborate with your team and when you need them to cooperate.

It won’t always be easy, but trust that you know what’s best for your business because your team is only as good as its leader, and when you are excited about your business and clear about your expectations, it makes life easier for everyone else too. 

Originally published Jul 01, 2020, updated Jul 21, 2022

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