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Cooperation: harder than it looks

29 November 2021
Thomas Teekens and Rafael Wittek
Thomas Teekens and Rafael Wittek

Everyone and everything cooperates – educational institutions, companies, government institutions, NGOs, and of course individuals. But things often go wrong, even if all parties have the best intentions. Why is that? Rafael Wittek and Thomas Teekens are part of a large team of researchers exploring this rather uncharted territory. You could call it ‘cooperation studies’.

Text: Gert Gritter, Communication UG / Photos: Hesterliena Wolthuis

Magic formula

These days ‘cooperation’ is a magic formula that is supposed to make families, communities, and organizations more resilient, to help them achieve outcomes that they could never have achieved on their own. Cooperation often runs smoothly at the start, but it can get tougher as time goes on: glitches may occur and it can even fail. How can you make sure that cooperation is sustained?

More than good intentions

Rafael Wittek, professor of sociology: ‘Participants in a joint project don’t really think about what cooperation actually is. They start with the best of intentions, but that alone won’t guarantee success. Cooperation doesn’t just happen; it’s not something you can leave to chance. We are subjecting it to comprehensive study to find out what is needed for cooperation to succeed.’

Government recognition

Wittek and Teekens, plus about 70 others, are working on a large-scale programme. SCOOP (Sustainable Cooperation: Roadmaps to a Resilient Society) is a comprehensive research programme that brings together sociologists, psychologists, historians, and philosophers to look for solutions for sustainable cooperation in the areas of care, work, and integration. It isn’t just a Groningen affair: researchers from Utrecht University, VU University Amsterdam, Radboud University, and Erasmus University are also taking part. The government attaches considerable importance to the research, as evidenced by the 18.8-million-euro Gravitation grant that was awarded to SCOOP in 2017, for a period of ten years.

Rafael Wittek: 'Having the best of intentions alone won’t guarantee success.'
Rafael Wittek: 'Having the best of intentions alone won’t guarantee success.'

Cooperation during the coronavirus pandemic

Specifically, Thomas Teekens is investigating NetwerkZON, a cluster of training programmes for care and welfare in Groningen, Drenthe, and northern Overijssel. It is a typical network organization: management is functional rather than hierarchical, with rotating chairs and project leaders. Teekens: ‘NetwerkZON is very important for the training of young people. It matches care and welfare institutions with more than 5,000 interns from MBO and HBO programmes. Things go wrong sometimes, of course, which creates dissatisfaction. I had just started my PhD research when the coronavirus struck. That gave me an opportunity to observe in practice how cooperation would work in special circumstances. The organizations involved immediately asked : should we stop with the current batch of interns? Their answer: we won’t make the call, we’ll leave it to the students. As it turned out, 20 to 30 percent of the interns continued to show up, especially those who weren’t simply job shadowing but who were embedded in work processes. That kept them motivated. This is a key insight when it comes to developing policy recommendations for NetwerkZON.’

Three risk factors

In the SCOOP programme, researchers like Wittek and Teekens have identified three key factors that threaten cooperation: feedback loops, external shocks, and spillover effects. The first involves a vicious circle or downward spiral, as often happens when management tightens the reins to increase employee efforts. However, this undermines their employees’ motivation to achieve a common goal, with the result that management once again tightens the reins – until industrial relations are completely ruined. In the second instance, there are sudden events, such as a financial crisis or a pandemic, which have nothing to do with the actual cooperation but which affect it adversely. In the third instance, cooperation is affected by negative external influences. People operate in different arenas, such as their job and their family. If there are problems at home, this can spill over into their performance at work and therefore affect the cohesion of the team.

Solutions

If an organization wants to maintain healthy cooperation, there has to be a policy to tackle situations that can threaten lasting cooperation. Very simple interventions will sometimes suffice. In the case of spillover effects, employees could be given the option of shifting their working hours or taking days off in a more flexible way. If there are external shocks, blended working and online applications could be the solution, as we have seen during the coronavirus pandemic. In the case of feedback loops, you can look for other, better ways to boost your employees’ motivation to keep working towards a common goal.

Thomas Teekens: 'The coronavirus gave me an opportunity to observe in practice how cooperation would work in special circumstances.'
Thomas Teekens: 'The coronavirus gave me an opportunity to observe in practice how cooperation would work in special circumstances.'

Noblesse oblige

SCOOP is a particularly heterogeneous group. Staff come from various fields, such as sociology, psychology, history, and philosophy. They are also affiliated with a range of institutions in Utrecht, Amsterdam, Nijmegen, Rotterdam, Groningen, and elsewhere. But doesn't that make cooperation especially difficult? And doesn’t it mean even more pressure to make it succeed? If sustainable cooperation experts make a mess of things, what does this do to their credibility? Wittek has to smile at this last question, which he is often asked: ‘It was a learning process for us, too. We have been working on it since 2012 and have learned how important it is to have patience with and respect for one another.’

Commitment

Wittek also points out that having a common interest in the problem at hand ensures cohesion: ‘We talk to each other often and at length. This shows that there is commitment and that we have an intrinsic interest in one another. There is an atmosphere in which you don’t have to be afraid of saying something stupid or that the other person has a hidden agenda. The grant funds are in a shared pot and the collected research data is also accessible to all partners. Our routines and procedures provide clarity, but we also keep adjusting them where necessary. The cooperation between disciplines is going well, too. We learn from and complement each other.’

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Last modified:30 November 2021 10.23 a.m.
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