Deciding When to Cooperate, When to Compete

Cooperation and competition
How do we navigate the line between cooperation and competition? Probably not very well, or not all the time.

“The tension between competition and cooperation defines many of our interactions at home and work, and to succeed across these realms requires knowing when and how to do both. In our most important relationships, from the negotiating table in the boardroom to the breakfast table with our kids, we routinely face challenges that appear to offer two opposing solutions. Yet the question – should we cooperate or should we compete – is often the wrong one. Our most important relationships are neither cooperative nor competitive. Instead, they are both.”

Write Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer in Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both. “We must nimbly shift between the two,” they say because :

“what comes next will not take the shape of cooperation or competition, but rather a shifting dynamic between the two. As we compete for scarce resources in our unstable world, it's not enough to be prepared to cooperate or compete. We must be prepared to do both.”

We live in a “both/and world” and knowing how to navigate when and how to pursue our own interests, and when and how to help others achieve theirs will help us come out on top in the uncharted complexity of business territory as well as personal relationships.

[I'll have more to say about the social science research in the book once I get through it.]

There is another reason why it's a good idea to learn how to make comparisons work for us, to trust but verify, and overall to know when to make trade-offs — and that is to benefit in performance from the use of our energy.

And beyond considerations on our judicious use of energy is also the story we tell ourselves about what is going on — our worldview, our stories influence what we do. Which means we need to pay attention to becoming more aware of our behaviors.

Because we're hard-wired to respond to “human experience, or a judgement to reality that can change from positive to negative or negative to positive,” we respond well to Story. Why we look for a good story in a presentation, for example. In The Story Grid, Shawn Coyne says this human experience that can change in valence is the Story value. He lists some of them:

Alive/Dead, Truth/Lie, Love/Hate, Justice/Injustice, Hope/Despair, Good/Evil, Right/Wrong, Happy/Sad, Naïve/Experienced, Young/Old, Smart/Dumb, Rich/Poor, Freedom/Slavery, Honor/Shame, Chosen/Ignored, etc.

Reality, like fiction, is not black and white. There are progressive degrees of positivity or negativity for each. For example, between love and hate is indifference; beyond hate is hate masquerading as love or self-hatred.

This is most useful when we think about conversation as a negotiation of meaning. As I said in that post (lightly edited below):

Many of the most productive conversations we have lead to an understanding of sorts. In some cases they allow us to connect with one another in a way that leads to solving a problem, advancing a project, and creating opportunity for a next step or action.

I liken this kind of conversation to a negotiation where both or multiple parties participate to varying degrees.

Because people are involved, outcomes tend to be fairly unpredictable, and that is a good thing.

If we could boil down the dynamics of relationships to a specific and neat formula, we would cut ourselves out of the myriad possibilities that exist for new creation. In fact, while ideas may sound similar at the moment of conception, the sweet spot is in the combinations and permutations we find for practical executions.

We are living our lives more publicly — as individuals and organizations — so learning how to approach conversation as a negotiation is a benefit. Our digital imprint (we should now assume including out deleted emails) and what others experience of us are available for review.

When we talk about listening, engaging, sharing, we employ the principles of good communication. Yet the action does not stop when the conversation is over. The emotion generated before, during and after an exchange creates the momentum for what's next.

This is important because we buy, we join, and we connect on the basis of emotion. Then, as a way of justifying to ourselves and others our actions, we rationalize how we got there.


Some cultures have a developed sense of the need for saving face – in Italian we call it fare una brutta figura. The five main or core concerns all human beings have that we need to be aware of to become more effective in negotiations are:

  1. Appreciation
  2. Affiliation
  3. Autonomy
  4. Status
  5. Role

In the post I go into more detail. For a deeper dive into business negotiation techniques, I highly recommend Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher, William L. Ury, and Bruce Patton.

The book gets into very fine detail about the art and science of negotiation. For example, when they say “separate the people from the problem,” the authors mean that people problems often require more attention than substantive ones.

Humans are prone to defensive and reactive behavior. Thus their advice is to “build a working relationship independent of agreement or disagreement.” That means being able to deal with differences. We can use this advice in so many aspects of work and life, online and offline.


The smarter we become at learning to observe our behaviors and those of others to understand and appreciate what is going on, and at making deliberate decisions on how we are going to respond, the better our experiences with relationships in business and in life.


[images via Pixabay CC0 Public Domain / FAQ]