Trust enables, but is not required for, both cooperation and collaboration

There is wide variation on the most effective means to foster or achieve cooperation between organizations, but trust is one of several mechanisms often suggested that can have an enabling effect on cooperation, alone or in the context of related factors such as reciprocity, negotiation, reputation, or a historical relationship based on prior interactions among the parties. Even without specifics as to the precise role trust plays in facilitating cooperative interaction between entities, much of conventional management theory implicitly or explicitly accepts the assertion made by Kenneth Arrow (1974) that “trust is an important lubricant of a social system,” despite its somewhat intangible nature. This wording came to mind when reading a tweet from Jill Wanless during last week’s Collaborative Culture Camp in Ottawa that “Trust is the oil that greases the wheels of collaboration.” During this event, organized by Library and Archives Canada, focused on sharing ideas and fostering discussion on ways in which the government can engender greater levels of collaboration, both within government and between government and the public and other outside entities. True to its name, the event is about collaboration, not about trust, but based on comments and notes from attendees like Tanya Snook, trust is considered to be a prerequisite for collaboration in many contexts.

Much of the empirical research on cooperation makes no assumptions about the presence or absence of trust ex ante, and to the extent that decisions to cooperate are explained in terms of the parties’ self-interest (Axelrod, 1984), institutional incentives to cooperate (Farrell, 2009), or even simply in terms of mutual assurances (Blackburn, 1998), there appears to be little need to introduce trust into the discussion, other than to suggest that repeated cooperative exchanges among two or more parties may, over time, produce trust that may facilitate future interactions. While successful acts of cooperation can often be explained without reliance on trust as a factor, trust can facilitate decisions to cooperate, however, cooperation can and does occur in the absence of (or with insufficient) trust.
Collaboration and cooperation are similar concepts, but from the perspective of trust and establishing trust-based relationships, the terms differ in important ways. Collaboration involves the joint effort of two or more parties in order to accomplish or produce something, where each party makes some contribution to the collective outcome. Because successful collaboration depends on everyone doing what they are supposed to do to (or what they commit to do), collaboration often involves cooperation. The contributions made by collaborators may or may not be uniquely provided by the entities that participate in a collaborative activity, so for instance if one party fails to deliver as expected, the intended outcome may still be realized through the compensating action of other parties. Cooperation also involves coordinated, sequential, or reciprocal action by two or more parties, but in general the outcomes sought through cooperation are ones that could not be achieved by one party acting alone. In this way cooperation differs fundamentally from collaboration, in that the failure of one party to a cooperative relationship to fulfill its expectations or obligations typical results in the failure to realize the optimal outcome of the cooperative effort (Axelrod, 1984).

One similarity between collaboration and cooperation, despite the value of trust in enabling collaborative and/or cooperative activities, is that trust is not explicitly required in order for success to occur, at least if sufficient common interests exist for the parties to the relationship in question. Much of the commonly accepted theory on cooperation suggests that outcomes resulting from the pursuit of self-interest are sub-optimal, leaving room for improvement where reciprocal consideration for the interests of the other parties is taken into account. This idea is reflected in scholarly literature and popular management guidance alike, and supported by observations on the role of trust in collaboration by data-quality guru Jim Harris. In collaborative environments both within and across organizations, it seems trust is a powerful enabler, but also something that takes time to develop, sustain, and, where failures against expectations occur, to re-build.


Arrow, K.J. (1974). The limits of organization. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Axelrod, R. M. (1984). The evolution of cooperation. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Blackburn, S. (1998). Trust, cooperation, and human psychology. In V. Braithwaite, & M. Levi (Eds.), Trust and governance (pp. 28-45). New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Farrell, H. (2009). The political economy of trust: Institutions, interests, and inter-firm cooperation in Italy and Germany. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.