The Strategist

When cooperation doesn’t work: Three alternative ways to solve problems

03/05/2018 - 11:45

We are used to believe that cooperation is the best and most correct option when solving problems: we are all interdependent and interrelated, and therefore we are obliged to work together. This is true, but only partly. Someone may want to cooperate with us when we are not interested, and vice versa: we call for cooperation on those who are doing perfectly without us.
When solving a specific problem, we must decide whether to cooperate or not. But is there another way besides cooperation?

Cooperation is not for everyone

We try to cooperate when we want to change the current situation, and believe that we can achieve this only if we work with others. We are sure that we will not be able to figure it out on our own. We may or may not want to cooperate, but we believe that we cannot do without it in a particular situation.

Cooperation provides an opportunity to find a more effective way to resolve the conflict and to gain a more stable impact on the situation. But cooperation is not a panacea. After all, we risk that its results will not be too bright, and the path to them will be slow; besides, we will need compromises on our part, and perhaps even a deviation from our principles or betrayal of our values.

In addition, cooperation is not an obvious benefit for everyone. According to David Stillman's Gen Z @ Work book, young people entering the labor market are much less willing to cooperate than previous generations. They adhere to the do-it-yourself principle.

Unlike the millennials committed to working together and believing that a problem shared is a problem halved, the representatives of generation Z declare that they would prefer to finish a project individually and get a deserved recognition, rather than to embrace the group approach and share the glory. It seems that we will have to learn new strategies for teamwork in the near future. This can be: compulsion, adaptation, avoidance.


One of the alternatives to cooperation is compulsion. We try to push on someone, when we believe that we are obliged to change the situation and are able to do this without consulting with others. We are sure that alone or together with colleagues we will easily force the others to comply with our instructions.

The advantage of compulsion is that this way of thinking is natural and familiar for many people. They are convinced that in most cases compulsion is the best and, perhaps, the only way to achieve any change. The reverse side of compulsion is related to the fact that pressure ob people evokes pressure on us in response. Thus, we run the risk of not getting the result we seek.


We try to adapt when we understand that changes in the situation are unlikely and, consequently, we need to find a way to live in it. Adaptation may require extraordinary talents, wisdom and courage, but our actions are severely limited. We are convinced that we cannot change the rules of the game. Thus, we focus on doing the best possible way and ignore, avoid or reconcile with what is happening around.

The advantage of adaptation is that it allows us to live life without wasting energy on fruitless attempts to change things that we cannot change.

Sometimes it works fine, sometimes it does not help, but this is the maximum that we can do. Some situations, however, can be so hostile that it is difficult even to survive, let alone to adapt.


We try to evade when we do not believe that we can change the situation, but we no longer want to be there. We can quit, divorce, leave. Sometimes it's easy to quit everything, but such a choice requires giving up much that is dear to us.

What to choose?

It's easy to start collaborating when everyone agrees and wants it. But often we want to cooperate, but others do not, and vice versa. Others decide that avoidance, or adaptation (rather than communication with us), or compulsion (victory over us) is better than cooperation (working with us).

In such circumstances, we will have to wait until they begin to doubt feasibility of their decision, become nervous or despair. Then their interest in cooperation will increase. We can make them nervous if we prove that they are able to apply power equal to theirs. Either try to inspire the hope of cooperation, kindle their curiosity or gain sympathy.

In any case, it is worth remembering that cooperation is not the only choice. We need to think carefully about why we choose a particular strategy in a particular situation. Each option has its strengths and weaknesses. Keeping them in mind, we will make informed decisions.

Based on  “Gen Z @ Work. How the Next Generation Is Transforming the Workplace” by David Stillman

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