What are the two key characteristics of collaboration and how does collaboration differ from cooperation?

The corporate vocabulary is made up of nice-sounding buzzwords and phrases whose application doesn’t necessarily correlate with their true meaning. That is not to say that there is any negative intent behind such application, but rather that some terms are often taken lightly and interpreted without attention to the nuances contained within their definition. 

“Teamwork” and “collaboration” both feature prominently in the corporate lexicon, and for a good reason. After all, teamwork and collaboration are truly the cornerstones of a healthy and productive working environment.

Still, even a casual browse through a random sample of “values/vision” pages on business websites will reveal a great deal of misunderstanding and misapplication regarding these terms. “Teamwork” and “collaboration” are often used interchangeably as synonyms, even though there are significant differences in their meanings. 

In this article, we will do our best to clarify the distinctions between teamwork and collaboration ( as well as a few other “neighboring” terms), determine where they overlap and where they diverge, and why this distinction is so important. 

What is teamwork

What are the two key characteristics of collaboration and how does collaboration differ from cooperation?

Definitions of teamwork are numerous and diverse, depending on the context of its application. The Cambridge Dictionary defines teamwork as “the combined actions of a group of people working together effectively to achieve a goal”, while the Merriam-Webster Dictionary provides a slightly different interpretation of “work done by several associates with each doing a part but all subordinating personal prominence to the efficiency of the whole”. Within the business context, we can simply find the common ground between the two interpretations and define teamwork as the joint effort of individuals towards a shared goal

By its etymology, the term “teamwork” implies the presence of a team. While there is no one universal type of team that practices teamwork, we can identify some of the more common characteristics associated with “teamworking” teams:

  • Similar skill sets among team members
  • Individual autonomy of team members
  • Clear definition and division of roles
  • Defined leadership and hierarchy

Ironically, the above-mentioned Merriam-Webster definition supports the confusion of the corporate lingo by listing the following terms as synonyms for teamwork: collaboration, cooperation, and coordination. Just like collaboration, the latter two terms should not be considered with teamwork, although they are closely related. Let’s take a closer look.

The three Cs of teamwork

In an article titled “Collaboration vs. C-Three”, author Leo Denise states that communication, cooperation, and coordination are the “three Cs” of togetherness, ie. teamwork. Let’s see how each one of the three Cs relates to teamwork. 

Communication in teamwork refers to the quality of both the understanding and the informational flow between team members. The information shared between members through communication is not limited to factual input regarding various aspects of the shared work, but also emotional input. The ability of team members to process this diversity of informational input healthily and constructively plays a major role in the team’s collective ability to perform. 

*For more information about team communication visit our Team communication hub.

Coordination is a process that aims to achieve maximum efficiency of a team by synchronizing the activities of individual team members and removing redundancy, repeat work, or any other detrimental work activities. Coordination creates a framework that ensures that everyone pulls in the same direction. In short, it lets all the team members know what they are supposed to do and when they are supposed to do it. Additionally, it provides a perspective on the relationship between individual work and collective achievement. 

Cooperation speaks to one’s ability to perform as a part of a group, to set aside any selfish goals and actions and consider the interests of the team. When we say that someone is a “team player”, we’re actually saying that they are cooperative. In itself, cooperation doesn’t carry any qualitative evaluation of one’s ability to work with others or the team’s ability to work together, but merely the fundamental willingness and the potential to do so. Of course, this willingness is one of the elementary prerequisites of teamwork. 

Clearly, neither of the “three Cs” can be fully considered synonymous with teamwork, but they do form a natural hierarchy that leads toward it. 

Communication → Cooperation → Coordination → Teamwork

Any team-level activity begins with communication and grows into cooperation, with the cooperational activities eventually synchronized into a coordinated collective effort that is the foundation of quality teamwork. 

The emotional component of teamwork

Aside from its functional aspects, teamwork is also marked by a strong emotional component implying a higher degree of personal connection between team members and their emotional investment in the quality and the success of their working relationship. 

Authors Joe Luca and Pina Tarricone identify five key emotional attributes for quality teamwork:

  • Self-awareness: the ability to understand and interpret one’s own feelings through internal reflection, which leads to a greater degree of understanding of oneself and, consequentially, others. 
  • Self-regulation: the ability to regulate one’s emotions in order to facilitate a productive workflow, particularly when faced with pressure situations and conflicts. It requires team members to place the collective work and collective goals ahead of their emotions. 
  • Motivation: the degree of emotional investment into the shared work and the shared goals. Motivation in a team setting is a two-way proposition – our degree of motivation is determined by the support, nourishment, and inspiration we receive from others, while our own actions towards other team members impact their own degree of motivation. 
  • Empathy: the capacity to see things from another person’s perspective. Our ability to understand and interpret the feelings or actions of other team members guides our interactions and makes us better equipped to find the right approach to different team members and different situations.  
  • Social skills: the development of a positive, supportive, and productive working environment is largely dependent on the social skills of team members, their ability to handle and deter conflict, to identify and ease any tensions before they escalate.

What is collaboration

What are the two key characteristics of collaboration and how does collaboration differ from cooperation?

We have already dedicated plenty of space to defining collaboration and detailing its basic postulates. Instead of repeating ourselves, we will instead focus on the most relevant distinctions between teamwork and collaboration that will help us harness both to the betterment of teams. 

Main differences between teamwork and collaboration

There are many differences between collaboration and teamwork, some more formal and others more substantial, varying in choice and extent depending on the source. In order to avoid theoretical nit-picking, we will instead focus on the two most crucial distinctions that separate the two processes. 

Diversity of skills

Unlike the similarity of roles and skillsets commonly associated with teamwork, the diversity of skills, roles, and perspectives is one of the defining qualities of collaboration. Instead of all team members pulling in the same direction, collaboration brings together professionals of diverging expertise in order to combine their skills and insights to realize a shared goal that could not be achieved through the reliance on a single skill set. 

Where teamwork relies on coordination to achieve peak productivity, collaboration does not thrive on the adherence to a pre-determined scenario, but rather on improvisation. Collaboration reaches its full potential through the clash of perspectives,  an active dialogue between collaborators, and a free exchange of ideas, insights, and opinions that reinforce the team’s collective ability to solve problems and fuel innovation. 


Teamwork, as well as its earlier evolutionary stages of cooperation and coordination, are rooted in agreement – a shared understanding of individual roles and responsibilities with fairly defined outputs and outcomes. In stark contrast, collaboration is rooted in positive uncertainty and unpredictability – the potential to create something new, rather than perform within a familiar framework of expectations. 

The emphasized creative aspect of collaboration is nicely described by Michael Schrage in his book “Shared Minds”: 

“Collaboration is the process of shared creation: two or more individuals with complementary skills interacting to create a shared understanding that none had previously possessed or could have come to on their own. “

Collaboration, in opposition to teamwork, thrives on difference and yields the greatest rewards through the challenging of petrified perspectives. 


So, does everything previously stated serve to imply an either/or proposition with teamwork and collaboration? Of course not!

Both teamwork and collaboration play a major role in the operations of modern-day organizations. In fact, they often overlap, run parallel, and take place simultaneously or interchangeably. The confusion in terminology doesn’t simply stem from a lack of theoretical foundation, but more likely from the commonality and the presence of both teamwork and collaboration in the present-day workplace. 

Both teamwork and collaboration are legitimate and effective approaches to getting the job done. Understanding the fundamental differences between the two approaches will help us decide which approach should be utilized in order to achieve different objectives.