Learning Collaboration from a 5 Year Old


Two children are playing on the floor. One of the first things we are taught when we start public school is that it is good to share what you have. If you have several toys, sharing some with others can not only be fun but much more socially acceptable. However 5 year olds are not very socialized, that is why I picked that age for this blog.

A kid who hogs his/her toys or takes someone else’s is considered a bully, and “not nice,” or a mean kid. Why is it that when as adults we do that we justify it by saying stuff like “I own that knowledge, and the more I hoard it and the slower I dole it out the more valuable I will be.” However, nothing is further from the truth! The kid that shares his toys have others share their toys with him, they seek him out if they want a specific toy, or know he is great to play with around airplanes. The same is true for knowledge and expertise. I freely give mine away all the time. I am on many thought leadership or advisory boards. My belief is that the more I share what I know the more valuable I am. Consequently I am the one many people come to if they have a collaboration issue (of any kind). Often I share this information through blogs, articles, and reports, some of them are copied by others (with permission), again spreading the word to a wide audience, In a social environment it is true that content is critical, but it is also true that your content has no value to someone if they never see it!

“Little kids don’t like bullies, and what do they do? They either run and hide or they tell the teacher. If they are really smart and collaborative they get their friends to cooperate with them and beat back the bully.”


I was a small kid all the way through high school (I went to college at barley 5 feet and 100 lbs.), and so got picked on a lot. In today’s workforce bullies can be people who always dominate the conversation or meeting. Or just because they have power over another employee, they use it or mis-use it (it can be very tempting). But little kids don’t like bullies, and what do they do, they either run and hide (which does not bode well for collaboration) or they tell the teacher. If they are really smart and collaborative they get their friends to cooperate with them and beat back the bully. Bullies can be much like “Trolls” in social environments today. In general no one likes them, they are just there to cause trouble (generally because of some issue in their lives), and being so anti-social don’t deserve to be part of any communities or organizations, and are often kicked out. So being a bully, while tempting, it does not help with collaboration (it hinders it… mostly for the bully), and gets you thrown out.


This is one of my favorite traits of many kids. I can remember a year when I was young when all I asked about anything anyone said was “Why?” I guess as an industry analyst today, I am still saying “Why” but I have added, what, how, when and where to the list. Kids are designed to be information sponges, they more and quicker they learn (according to evolution) the more likely they are to survive, so no wonder most kids are information sponges and my little nieces and nephews are playing on their iPads at 2-3 years old. Curiosity not only leads to innovation (which ultimately drives a company’s success) but it also leads us to “question authority” and start to take on more decision making power and autonomy (the direction the workforce is moving today). Curiosity also leads us to others, “who are you?” and may be the seat of our drive to be social.


Today, one extreme form of curiosity, often exhibited by Millenials, is they want to be part of everything, they never want to get off their device as then they will be disconnected, or god forbid, they would have to interact with another human face-to-face. This ends up with people being addicted to their devices, to their e-mail, their online communities, etc. to such a point that a survey done a few years ago showed that of the population they surveyed, 11% checked their e-mail during sex!


Some little kids are not so good at cooperation, they often play by themselves. Other are more outgoing and are involved with other kids in almost everything they do. But many kids are too young to understand a mutual goal or outcome, or things like “organizational alignment.” They often cooperate by luck of circumstance, or because someone older imposes a cooperative structure upon them. I am not saying that you have to be an extrovert to be a good team member, but you do have to be willing and able to communicate clearly, well, and often with your teammates in order to avoid misunderstanding, rework, duplicated work, late deadlines, running over budget, etc.

cooperation Photo courtesy of Digikuva


Interactions are the atomic level of collaboration and all collaboration is made up of interactions (of any kind). When you watch kids, you get to see how they interact. When they are young, they are just themselves, and can be very clear and upfront about what they want (and sometimes very loud and obnoxious), there are no masks or hidden agendas, no political maneuvering, no lying, there is just the desire or” the want”, and who they have to interact with to get it. When interacting with grown-ups to get food, or be taken care of, they soon learn that if they do this… they don’t get fed or taken care of, and if they do that they do. Once we are socialized our interactions are much less pure, our goals less clear, and our playmates less well defined. Little kids will play with whoever is there, if they want to play, how often does that happen in the enterprise?


Many kids like candy, and if you offer them candy you can get them to do a lot of things. This reward for behavior pattern is learned very early. Generally kids do not do something out of fear, or loss, or projecting into the future, they are just in the here and now. They are focused on the reward before them, and trying to figure out how to get it. Gamification, which is popular today is based on the same kind of reward structure. Often collaboration is its own reward. I get to work on a team dealing with an amazing project, or I get to work with someone I have respected and admired for a long time, or I get to work with someone I like and have fun with.

What lessons on collaboration can you learn from a five year old? How can they make you a better employee, leader, team worker, etc.? Where did you learn those behaviors and do they always get you want you want? Things today are changing at breakneck speed, what new things do you have to learn, how can you engage that child-like curiosity? I continue to watch kids to see what I can learn from them and what lessons I can take back to my collaboration clients.