Thought Catalysts: Dan Pontefract on Cooperation

August 31, 2016 Dan Pontefract, Speakers' Spotlight

There are leaders and then there are followers. Generally the idea is to be the former. 

But perhaps it's worth a shot to look at this phrase the other way around. Maybe to be a leader, it's worth being a follower. 

The people who lead the way with awesome ideas and unique talents did so by acquiring knowledge and applying it in new and interesting ways. We all need to learn stuff to lead stuff. And those who do it best inspire others to act. 

They are Thought Catalysts. Here they are as told by the movers and shakers from Speakers' Spotlight


“To work with” – that’s really what cooperating means. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

In research conducted for her book, Hot Spots: Why Some Teams, Workplaces, and Organizations Buzz With Energy: And Others Don’t, author Lynda Gratton summarized an environment that was effectively more cooperative as follows:

“… the energy of the cooperative mindset comes not from a mindset of competition but rather from a mindset of excellence. The focus is on the excellence toward which people are striving together rather than the competition of beating everyone else to the goal.”

A leader may work tirelessly to analyze, decide and deliver but if it’s being done in a competitive atmosphere, if the team feels as though it’s being less than cooperative, it is unlikely to produce the results long term that we are seeking. It may stall your efforts to improve employee engagement which will ultimately stall levels of productivity and business improvements.

Let’s examine the game known as Prisoner’s Dilemma to further our argument about cooperating versus competing as well as being open and harmonious versus closed and hurtful.

Invented in 1950 by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dreshe at the RAND Corporation, the actual title “Prisoner’s Dilemma” originated from Albert Tucker when he added specific prisoner sentences to the game. Prisoner’s Dilemma at its root is a game about cooperation versus competition. The intent of the game is to test how cooperative people really are against the backdrop of pressure, stress and options.

Imagine you’re a criminal and you and your associates (the game can be played with several players) were recently caught by law enforcement. You’ve been summoned in front of a judge who has issued a sentence to be served immediately. Due to unforeseen circumstances, there are no witnesses and no evidence, so the sentence issued is minimal, however, crown prosecutors want to ensure someone dearly pays for the alleged misdemeanor.

You’ve been offered a plea bargain; rat out your colleague and your sentence is reduced but your colleague has their own sentence multiplied by a factor of five. Of course, unbeknownst to you, the same offer is issued to each of your fellow accomplices. Hence, the “prisoner’s dilemma”; do you cooperate and altogether as a team receive the original sentence, or do you take an easier way out, leaving your colleagues to suffer?

What Would You Do?

Dilemmas surface all the time within the work environment for leaders. Prisoner’s Dilemma is a fictitious scenario but when pressed to hit a deadline, to cut costs, to increase production or to mitigate a negative business result, do you as a leader demonstrate a cooperating attitude with the team or, conversely, do you compete, throw team members under the proverbial bus, and take the plea bargain?

When the stresses of work pile up, will you cooperate or compete? Will your harmonious and open environment be destroyed by acts of fear driven by pressure resulting in a more competitive environment within your team than the intended way of being which is to be cooperating?

I recall a situation that occurred in one of the high tech companies I once worked for. For about a 10- to 15-year period, software companies killed several thousand trees and shipped a physical user and help guide in the box to accompany the software CDs. Under Research & Development was a team that was tasked to develop said guides. In another part of the company sat a team that also killed several thousand trees through the creation of physical classroom training guides.

When it’s software, and particularly when there are end users in mind, the overlap of content between the user guide and the training guides is quite high. Through that 15-year period, step-by-step sequential instructions were all the rage. Both teams, however, had independent content management systems and processes. Repeated attempts to cooperate were made at various leadership levels, from content developers, to graphic designers, to vice presidents.

In the end, the teams remained competitive as opposed to cooperative. Sure, they liked each other, but not enough to consolidate systems and develop content—through shared processes—cooperatively and in unison. They chose to punish each other rather than assist. Were the leaders being harmonious or hurtful?

Cooperating — it is literally “to work with.” We ought to be using it more within our teams, and across our organizations.

This piece originally appeared in Forbes.


Dan Pontefract is a best-selling author and expert on leadership and organizational change. To read more of his posts, visit his page on Speakers' Spotlight. To have Dan speak at your next function, email Speakers' Spotlight at 

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