No Fear: Why You Need to Develop a Workforce Culture of Cooperation

By Pekka Viljakainen & Mark Meuller-Eberstein

A culture of cooperation is easy to see as just “normal good manners combined with the company’s values.” This is stuff you learned as a child.

As a leader, I can’t really be sure that if I recruit only civilized people, the culture will naturally grow – on its own. PSF philosophy posits, “All are responsible for helping all.” The world of consulting companies – the original PSFs – operates around strong, independent partner organizations. These mini-networks are selfish and self-sufficient by nature.

To offset this independence, PSF organizations created a culture where everyone was obligated to respond to any request for help originating from any part of the organization. The help request had to be precise and clear – not some convoluted spam e-mail sent to a big mailing list.

If a recipient of the message repeatedly didn’t react in any way to the enquiry, the rest of the network assumed that this person didn’t really want to be a part of it. No reason was good enough to justify repeated neglect of the needs of your network, including high-flying title, time pressure, vacation, overtime, mother’s birthday, etc.

Are you obligated to respond for help?

People who – upon receiving a request for help – first consult their job description to see whether the request is any of their business are useless to me. They are not welcome in my network. It sounds rough, but this is one rule I had to follow ruthlessly.

Conversely, if I saw a cardboard box sitting in a place where it might get in the way of a customer, I moved it away myself. Those who jumped over the box or kicked it out of the way, I disciplined immediately. I can’t believe an intelligent human being would want to hide behind a job description. Or that someone would feel they are so high and mighty that a common cardboard box isn’t their problem.

Putting this philosophy into practice is not easy, and I certainly wasn’t able to respond to all requests for help. When you’re dealing with an organization of 17,000 employees, the number of requests you receive every week runs into the hundreds. And that’s not counting the ones from the customers.

If I had 10 different requests waiting for me in my e-mail and voicemail in-boxes, it’d be natural to take care just of the easy ones first. These would include all requests in my own language, country and time zone. I decided the bigger challenge would be to start tackling the most confusing requests from the farthest distance away and written in a foreign language first.

People who were physically close to me could often receive help from other parties. At some point even the people closest to me thought I was being a bit of a diva. Employee satisfaction surveys started reflecting this immediately. My closest colleagues said I was hard to reach and seemed to be on the road all the time. As with all new systems, I had a few kinks to work out as we strived to create a culture of cooperation.

Implementing a 2:1 workplace philosophy

Working through these growing pains is easier when an organization implements a 2:1 philosophy. Basically this means that everyone has two ears and one mouth. It’s the art of listening. And it is the art of participating.

As far as the culture of an expert organization is concerned, 2:1 refers to a much broader issue of leadership development. It’s easy to say a leader has two ears for listening. But we’re not talking about passive, one-way listening. As important as it is for a leader to carefully listen to signals in the network, it’s also vital that everyone is encouraged to use their mouth to add value to the network.

The personal opinions of all parties, including executives, are an integral part of PSF culture and in leading Digital Cowboys. All members of the network have the right to voice their opinions, but for the leaders it’s also an obligation. When you remember that each message must have value for the network, it is possible to avoid most platitudes and clichés, as well as substance-free chatter.

The most important thing I got from building a culture of PSF cooperation is on my wall. It’s a print-out from 2004 – a souvenir from a training session dealing with PSF culture. It states:

Hire people who like people PROMOTE people who like people Don’t hire people who don’t like people God knows – don’t promote people who don’t like people.”

“Don’t promote people who don’t like people”

For me, this has been the cornerstone for creating the kind of culture I want. I have copied this threadbare piece of paper countless times when heading out to instruct headhunters on the kind of executives I want.

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“People who like people” can seem a bit vague, but look at the issue of building a culture of cooperation through this lens. What happens if the know-how of individuals is given significant precedence over social abilities in building the organization? Is it OK for the world’s top technical expert, who brings oodles of cash and fame to the company, to isolate him or herself from the culture of cooperation? Even one recruitment choice like this can compromise your culture.

On the other hand, cowboys tend to be individualists and I’ve taken on some real prima donnas for my team. I’ve let them play fast and loose with personal hygiene, office hours and time cards. I’ve allowed them to neglect company processes and, when push came to shove, organized all sorts of cover for people so they could make it in the maelstrom of a large organization.

The one thing I’ve never allowed – and will not allow – is breaking the rules of cooperation. Making even one exception in the “all help all” philosophy degrades the entire community. That last sentence in the Tom Peters print-out makes a lot of sense: “God knows – don’t promote people who don’t like people.”

If you accept even one top talent who will not, doesn’t want to or just doesn’t have the common sense to work within your shared rules, you can never celebrate his or her accomplishments in front of the others. Your credibility as a leader is shot the second you do that.

Working cooperation into the system

The culture of cooperation is surprisingly challenging to work into the system. As a concept, it’s incredibly simple but in practice differences between individuals and cultures can make it quite awkward for some people. The only way to make it concrete is to use crisis situations for this training.

When it becomes apparent that there are people in your organization who refuse to work together, it’s time for a brutally honest chat. The people in question and all supervisors involved need to meet the matter head on. These situations are as painful and awkward as the worst argument you’ll ever have with an unsatisfied customer.

But as far as the culture of your company goes, they’re extremely important and educational. It’s easy to pass the buck to HR or some other party.

Don’t do it. You and your organization need the learning experience.

Excerpted with permission from No Fear: Business Leadership in the Age of Digital Cowboys by Pekka Viljakainen & Mark Meuller- Eberstein, published by Marshall Cavendish. Available at

Mark Mueller-Eberstein is founder and CEO of Adgetec Corporation, a consulting, coaching, and mentoring company. He has coached leaders across the globe on this topic with hands?on experience in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Pekka Viljakainen is the former president of Tieto International and has spent the past 20 years as an ambassador between business executives and technology teams. An entrepreneur from the start, Pekka established VISUAL SYSTEMS Oy in 1986. Contact them at


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