‘Non-Cooperative’: a Dangerous HR Buzzword?

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NON-COOPERATIVE NON-ROBO DOGPolice, the military, private security services, and the latest, super-agile Google/Boston Dynamics spooky mini-tank-like robo-dogs have, as part of the specification of their present or future mandates and tasks, guidelines on how to deal with “non-cooperative” individuals or the capacity and potential (if not also the authorization) to do precisely that.

It is reported that, in some quarters, advanced robo-dogs and other robotic devices are eagerly awaited for their potential to deal with “non-cooperative” (a.k.a. “non-compliant”) individuals in connection with “a mission to search for and detect a non-cooperative human subject” during “pursuit/evasion scenarios”.

Given the public policy significance and implications of a focus on “non-cooperative” individuals, groups or “elements”, whatever cachet or place “non-cooperative” already has in HR management and assessment is likely to be getting a comparable boost to greater legitimacy—if not also expanded use as an assessment buzzword (especially if “non-cooperative” starts to iconically or subliminally permeate mass consciousness and cultural awareness as designating something dangerous.)

For that reason, it is important, perhaps urgent, to be clear about how to define and interpret “non-cooperative” in all areas of discourse—in HR management, workplace relations, job performance and employee reviews and evaluations, public policy, law enforcement, military operations, shopping mall security, and even in the domains of public education, mental health, finance, day care and other sectors in which “non-cooperative” behavior and attitudes can occur and matter.

Thinking Straight about Non-Cooperativeness

It is perhaps even more important not to confuse “non-cooperative” with potentially worse things—such as “defiant”, “hostile”, “antagonistic”, “aggressive”, “belligerent”, “passive aggressive”, “anti-social”, “disruptive”, “suspicious”, “rebellious”, “threatening”, etc.—with “non-compliant”, like “non-cooperative(ness)”, being itself evaluatively ambiguous.

To grasp the potentially devastating consequences of such unfortunate confusion, imagine the impact on an employee or a child evaluated and labeled as “non-cooperative” (in a job performance review, on a school report card or transcript and in his or her permanent files), when “non-cooperative” is construed as connoting and denoting something truly awful.

Clear thinking quickly reveals that “non-cooperative” fundamentally means nothing more than “not cooperative”, the way that “non-green” means “not green”. Both “non-cooperative” and “not cooperative” designate positive as well as negative behaviors, traits, states and attitudes, not just undesirable ones.

For example, contained in the theoretical or any reported set of non-cooperative behaviors, individuals, etc., are those that are clearly or may on reflection be identified as “independent”, “competitive”, “neutral”, “not complicit”, “not obsequious”, “only selectively cooperative”, “not self-incriminating”, “non-capitulating” and even “non-comprehending”—to cite but a few interpretations. Each of these is either consistent with, confirmatory or implicitly subsumed under the rubric “non-cooperative”.

The Virtue of Non-Cooperation

In fact, not only are there many forms of non-cooperative behavior that are perfectly acceptable, there are many that are, in addition, entirely laudable (in general, or in specific contexts).

Can you imagine Wealth of Nations economist Adam Smith bemoaning the “non-cooperative”, i.e., competitive free market, its mechanisms and its fiercely competitive companies and CEOs? No, for Smith and the average businessman being “competitive” (i.e., “non-cooperative”) is a badge of honor, not a reason for anyone to flash their own badge with “probable cause”.

No discussion of this could be complete without an allusion to Ayn Rand’s “John Galt”—the ferociously independent, entrepreneurial, competitive, defiant, heroic “objectivist” and objecting protagonist of Atlas Shrugged. “Non-cooperative?”—Rand wouldn’t have created him any other way or as anything less.

Free-market capitalists aside, how about quirky artists, scientists, poets, novelists and journalists whose “go-it-alone” personalities, work style and work ethics have made them great? “That temperamental Pablo Picasso—way too non-cooperative to amount to anything!” Hardly.

Moreover, sometimes what is needed most—if only as a breath of fresh air—is a non-cooperative, even defiant employee who is willing to speak his mind and against the collegial yes-man consensus, when push comes to vote on some nutty idea everybody else is too terrified to speak out against and to not “cooperate” with the boss pushing the proposal.

In such cases, “non-cooperative” is a close approximation to “heroic”, “gutsy”, “honest”. But try telling that to anybody who buys into only the pejorative connotations of “non-cooperative”.

Then there are the cases in which being “non-cooperative” really means being unwilling to surrender perceived rights or to commit evident wrongs.

When failure to cooperate is motivated by a perception that to do so would jeopardize, by abdicating or infringing rights (one’s own or those of another, respectively), it is a failing only if such non-compliance and non-complicity (for which “non-cooperativeness” is often a euphemism) is misguided, e.g., because it is misinformed. In the latter instance, “misinformed” may be a more accurate, precise and insightful assessment than “non-cooperative”.

Innocent Misunderstandings

Another potentially very damaging confusion is to confuse “non-cooperative” with “non-aware”, i.e., “unaware”, (with “non-responsive” lying somewhere between these two on a semantic spectrum).

Suppose an employee occasionally fails to do what is requested, but only because of a hearing or 2nd-language competency problem. The filed report may allege that the employee is “non-cooperative”, when in truth, (s)he was merely unaware of either what the unheeded requests meant or of the requests having been made.

Alternatively, an employee may decline or refuse to cooperate because of his or her (mis)understanding of the (il)legitimacy of a request, e.g., to work on some weekend and without overtime.

When the employee is in the right, this “non-cooperativeness” amounts to “defending one’s rights”; when wrong, again, it may be an innocent misunderstanding rather than willful, unwarranted defiance.

Scenarios involving police arresting a “non-cooperative” deaf or mentally-challenged vagrant ordered to move on can easily translate into a case of mutual misunderstanding or non-comprehension of this sort.

The Task That Remains

This analysis presents us with an important task: Given the inherent perils in misconstruing or over-extending the concept of “non-cooperativeness” in any of life’s domains, we must reflect on and decide whether what the concept designates is dangerous…

… or, instead, whether the concept itself is what is potentially or truly dangerous.

By Michael Moffa