Cooperate and Collaborate

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We see the words cooperate and collaborate quite often in the world of teamwork. I think examining the meanings has some value to reflect on our behaviors in this space. I flipped back and forth between the definitions for “cooperate” and “collaborate” in the dictionary trying to differentiate between these words. In text, they really have similar meanings—to work together. In actual use, they have different connotations.


When we didn’t get along with our fellow students, the elementary teacher would say that we should ‘cooperate’. So I have always used this word to mean to get along. When we were asked to create something that we couldn’t do on our own, the teacher used the word collaborate. I have always used collaborate to build something greater than ourselves.

To me to cooperate is a bare minimum—to get along. To get along, unless, you are teamed with your enemy, is pretty passive. On the other hand, to cooperate is to actively engage in such a way that you know what you bring to the table and you know what the other person(s) brings to the table; you have a specific objective and you figure out how to work together to achieve that goal. Cooperation is easy; collaboration is harder. (Even the meaning of collaboration is more complicated and longer.)

In the work world, cooperation between two individuals or two groups simply means they won’t put up barriers. “I’m not going to stop you, but I won’t help you either.” Collaboration might look like two individuals finding ways to share or use their resources to achieve a shared goal. “I like that idea and here is how I can help.”

Instead of cooperation we might use words like friendly or willing to share information. Collaboration might sound like contribution or aligning goals and resources. Collaboration is harder than cooperation because collaboration requires an actual contribution rather than remaining neutral and letting things pass. Cooperation requires little effort and no contribution.

In your world, are you a cooperator or a collaborator? What does success require of you—to get along or to build something greater than yourself?

Jonathan Shaver