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From competition it is a big leap to cooperation

Collaboration and cooperation are two totally different concepts. My translators tell me that, unfortunately, in the Chinese language they basically mean the same. I’ve written about that before.

With the help of several translators the slides that I use for my work contain these two symbols to represent collaboration:


Cooperation is presented as:


But then I have seen motivational posters where 合作 was shown next to the English word collaboration together with an image of two people climbing a mountain. One was offering the other his hand to help him up.

As I’ve been told Chinese life is very competetive. Pupils in school compete with each other. Only the best grades will allow a student to enter one of the good Universities. And only with good grades at the University will it be possible to find a good job.

I’ve done a few interviews and people tell me that collaboration or cooperation at University were not a smart idea. Why help the competition.

Another additional explanation is that in China there are so many people that it were essential to be ahead of everyone else. The answer sounded like it were a question of survival.

In such a climate not to compete with coworkers but cooperate with them is a big leap.

This week I learned about another data point to understand why collaboration seems to be such an alien concept in China. In a military context 36 strategies were developed and written down in ancient China. Those 36 strategies have just one purpose: how to be smarter than the enemy and how to cheat and betray for one’s own advantage. My source explained to me that in everyday business people apply the teaching of the 36 strategies.

Collaboration requires trust

Not to harm a coworker, not to interfere or sabotage other people’s work makes sense in a corporate environment for workers on the same low level within a hierachical organization. After all management expects results and that is commercially usable output. There are rules and processes to make individual workers perform tasks within a value creation chain. When each worker cooperates nicely with the other workers in the chain something useable will be made.

Trust is not required to cooperate. Rules and processes make sure that nobody acts against the externally defined goal.

For collaboration trust is essential. Collaboration means two or multiple persons are working together on the same thing sharing knowledge, techniques, practices in the open. Mistakes are visible to everyone. Gaps in knowledge are visible. People learn from each other and thus may become better at something - potentially better than the others in the group.

When there is no trust, then none of that open behavior that exposes vulnerabilities makes sense. The more one shows vulnerabilities the more risk to be betrayed and taken advantage of is there. If you cannot trust the other people, then don’t collaborate.

The most you can tolerate is cooperation.

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