Sixth Practice: On Collaborating

For more context on this posting, please see:

The Practice of Leadership
Eight Leadership Practices
First Practice: Knowing Your Leadership Edge
Second Practice: Developing Your Comfort Level with Feedback
Third Practice: Caring for Self
Fourth Practice: Leadership and Influence
Fifth Practice: Discussing Undiscussables
Seventh Practice: Personal Integrity
Eighth Practice: Spiritual Perspective

Collaborating is the name I give to a conflict that has been turned into a synergy.

All this means is that conflict — difference — is entirely natural to us, and when we use our differences to create a combined outcome that is better than what we might have created separately, we are collaborating. The only really special thing about collaboration is that the process of collaborating takes people some place they might not have gone on their own. My image of collaboration is gates opening between what is mine and what is yours on the way to achieving something of mutual importance and value.

In research that was done by the Amherst A. Wilder Foundation, collaboration was compared to coorperation and coordination — two related but also very different concepts. You can read about the research here. In using their model I’ve found that the one most critical difference is that with collaboration resources are openly shared. Our “money,” whether that represents real dollars or ideas or time and energy goes into the same pot. Nothing is being held back in the process. To achieve something meaningful and new, we must be “all in.” That also means that there is an understanding that no one has the whole answer; only together will the best solution come forward.

It is easy in a leadership role to give lip service to collaboration but actually use it to achieve something else, the most commonly preferred outcome being “buy-in” by others. So, crafty people that we are, we call meetings to discuss our ideas in the hopes that others will adopt them. We actually use the word, “collaborate.” We seem to be open to others’ ideas while maneuvering to get our way. Oldest con in the book and it doesn’t fool anybody — except maybe the leader who brought it there.

I don’t think collaborating is actually about buy-in at all. Its energy comes from a very different place. I am thinking of a CEO I know who went through a very difficult personal period in his life. Previously he had believed he really would achieve the American Dream of a wonderful family life, great job, plenty of financial stability. But then one year it all seemed to go wrong. His wife began experiencing a mental disorder and it became clear to my client that in order to save his relationship with his children he had to leave the marriage. This was absolutely the last thing he had dreamed of, but it became inevitable. At that point, he fell into a period of deep questioning about where his life was really going. He found himself at work attending meetings but not doing what others wanted him to do — which was to make decisions. He realized that in a sense he had been faking it. He didn’t know the answers to their questions, but he could say things that sounded like answers and others would act on that. In the past, his ability to lead in this way had been gratifying, but suddenly it seemed utterly false. He began to do things a little differently. He began to ask others for their opinions and encouraged them to make sound decisions through their own knowledge and insight. Remarkably, the people who worked for him began to prosper in a new way, and he began to get his spirit back, if reformed by the discovery that in neither life or work did he have all the answers. This was not about simply delegating to others, but about having much better, richer conversations where people put out on the table their real views. Somehow he had stopped deciding for others and started collaborating with them.

Oh, how many meetings have I attended where an old culture demands a win/lose argument to prove that one of us in the room (including me) has the right or best answer? Such nonsense, yet I have experienced so many of those apparently important meetings where an active default culture pushed executives to jockey for position and compete for personal credibility: the entangled, self-deceptive, total opposite of collaboration.

But collaboration isn’t really about “win/win solutions” either. That came from models that compared and contrasted collaboration with competition, such as the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument where scales of assertiveness and cooperativeness end up producing five different modes, including collaboration and compromise. I say collaboration is not “win/win” although that may be its most popular definition. I would say it a little differently, I guess, because “win/win” sounds like simply a positive compromise. True collaboration, I believe, goes farther.

An example from many years ago. My boss at the time, Personnel Director for the municipal government where I worked, was (and still is) a mentor to me. But he could also have very strong opinions, given his background as a labor negotiator, about issues such as “management rights.” I, on the other hand, came intuitively from a background of organization development. One day, trying to figure out a solution to a problem in one of the City’s departments, we found ourselves in a serious argument. My boss said to me, “Dan, why is it your solutions always seem to depend on involving and including employees, even if the issue doesn’t concern them?!” My retort, which of course I cannot remember exactly, had to do with his persistent focus on top down solutions that resulted in people feeling manipulated (“Managed” was probably the word I used at the time). So we seemed to be at a standoff. What was critically important about the standoff is that we had just said things to each other we had not said before — but had felt about one another. These things were our “truths.” And we had been having an argument about them, not about the situation in the Department. That was simply our excuse to have the argument. And it had been getting personal. But then something, I’m not really sure what, stopped us from creating a disaster in the relationship. We simply stopped the argument and stepped back. There was something absolutely clarifying about that moment. I had had no idea how my boss had viewed me with regard to employee involvement. I suspect, he had heard something new from me, as well. That was the moment, I believe, when we turned conflict into synergy. We stopped. We reflected. We started talking again, but the knowledge of what had been unspoken in our relationship changed the character of our problem-solving. Neither us then went for an extreme solution. We went for something that was entirely new to both of us.

Peter Koestenbaum in his book, Leadership: The Inner Side of Greatness talks about a group of engineers who found themselves in constant argument until they learned to stop talking about problems and solutions, and started talking about the pain they experienced in their work. The notion of pain, instead of problem, helped them focus on the next move — which was to dialogue, and that in turn led to learning and personal growth. The engineers had stopped the argument, and learned to collaborate.

An instance of this move is a story I’ve told many times about the executive team of a hospital. My plane was late so I arrived after the meeting had already started. As I entered the room, I immediately noticed that several people were wiping their eyes and others were glaring at each other angrily. As I sat down, a few members continued their dark rant about the team and how it always seemed to get stuck like this. The air was full of blame and sideways comments. Someone asked me to help them get out of it. In the moment, frankly, I didn’t know what to do. So I figured I’d better throw it back on them — and did — by asking the question, “What are you learning from this exchange?” The gods were certainly with me that day. That seemed to be just enough of an intervention to stop the hostilities. I made the group formally list out their learnings from the argument they had been having. There were quite a few about the nature of sideways comments and failures to say things directly to one another — as in looking another person in the eye and saying that person’s name so everyone knew where a particular comment was directed. As a result of the group’s self-evaluation, the norms for behavior at meetings changed significantly.

What I am talking about is how collaboration can be born as a tangible shift in group dynamics. A moment you can feel happening. Does this mean that collaboration only happens after an argument? No. But I do believe once people have experienced that moment, they have much better understanding of what collaborating at bottom is about. Having been through that moment, people can come to their encounters with one another differently.

Does this mean that everyone with this experience becomes an effective collaborator? No again. Some people do not find a shift away from argument useful for them. They’ve received too many rewards for dominating, for personal remarks, for loudness, for talking over others, and a host of other bad habits that, unfortunately, have gotten others to go along. And, truly, this can savage the possibilities of collaboration in a team, if the members are not strong enough to talk openly to the offender in the moment. The hospital group had been in that situation for a long time before their mutual tensions enabled them to break through.

To really understand collaboration, I believe we have to go back to that moment just before argument ceases and the synergy begins, and ask, so what’s there? And this is such an interesting moment. I would say it is the instant when the argument becomes sheer reflection of who we are. We are suddenly faced with one gigantic mirror. In the mirror we see the utter futility and pointlessness of the argument; we hear our voices as shouting opinions, not sharing facts. We begin to wonder about where our assumptions and strong feelings have come from, and we take the risk to look at them and see them plainly. Our fallibilities are apparent — at least to us — and we decide that there is nothing, really, in that moment to win or lose. Then, I think, we are able to make a fresh start, apologize if need be, and open ourselves to something really new. Out of this reflection, creativity arises. Remarkably, a sense of partnership or community also can come forward.

The beauty is that real collaboration can’t be faked. Yes, it does lead to a sense of ownership. Yes, it does lead to win/win, but those are outcomes that can’t be bought and sold through technique. All processes can be wrecked by ego, dominance, and slavish adherence to some name or convention. Collaboration can be a sudden and unexpected gift to a group of people who let their common problem become their common teacher.

The process I’m describing isn’t so different from Otto Scharmer’s Theory U, except that it can happen in a flash as people realize how empty it was to put up their careful fences and self-protective barriers in the first place.

One last example, from a slightly different angle. I was working with a big government agency. The head of one of its most important divisions, I’ll call him Salvador, decided to slightly reorganize, meaning that disparate groups would be expected to share their budgeted resources in order to collaborate on their best use across traditional organizational boundaries, both physical and non-physical. Salvador’s direct reports were going through a period of resistance to his vision. In a meeting of twenty or so managers, many expressed their resistance by saying they already collaborated.

One of the most senior of the managers, Richard, put it plainly. “Look,” he said to Salvador, “I do give away some of my resources to the other units. I invite them to learn from our folks when they don’t have training money of their own. They call and ask questions of my staff and we are helpful to them. I include them sometimes on task forces. I think I have a solid reputation for collaborating. And I know others here feel the same way. I really don’t see what you are asking for that’s different from what I already do.”

Salvador faced this challenge directly. “Richard,” he said in front of the group, “I understand that you believe you collaborate. But that is not my observation. And it is definitely not your reputation. My observation is that you occasionally give things to other departments and dole things out, but it never really reaches the level I’m looking for.”

Richard was flustered. “What do you mean, I don’t have a reputation for collaborating?” he demanded.

The rest of the room, of course, was suddenly very quiet.

Salvador continued gently: “Let’s talk about some things you have done to help other departments and things you might have done that would have been closer to the goal.”

As they talked, others joined in to help Richard see that while he had been generous to a degree, he had failed in sharing the one organizational resource that meant the most to him: power. His “gifts” created obligation and superiority to other departments. He really didn’t allow others to participate as equals. Others sucked up to him when they needed his help, but he never called them when he needed assistance. He never really “opened his gate” while expecting others to open theirs. While this was difficult feedback to Richard, as the day went by he seemed to internalize it well. He began to see the part of Salvador’s vision that had been unclear.

Collaboration is a subtle topic. It touches deep parts of who we are. It tests our blind spots. And it enriches us immeasurably.

To do it well, like so much of leadership, requires us to use that very bright and sensitive mirror we all carry within.

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  • Dan,
    You are brilliant, deep, creative, sensitive, and write so well. Sorry to sound like a groupie but I so much appreciate your perspective and voice and what you offer to your reader (me). Thank you so much for taking the time to compose such thoughtful and insightful posts.

  • You are welcome, David. I’m very honored by your praise.

  • Hey Dan!

    I finally got it all figured out (I had to pay someone to help me because I’m too much of a dummy with these things to figure it out on my own.)

    I’m glad we’re both back to blogging!
    Thanks again for all of your help!


  • @Jen regarding spam in Google Reader. Yes, I’m glad to be through that mess, too! At least for now!

  • Dan,
    Great post!
    Relationships are superficial until there is conflict. Conflict, handled in a mature manner always leads to a deeper more productive relationship.

    I spent many years in an organization where any conflict, push-back, debate or discussion was completely frowned upon. As a result the collaboration that you speak of was non-existent. The sad thing is that some people seem to thrive in this kind of culture, despite the fact that in the long run it does not work.

    Thanks for your insight. I love the stories – they really made the point.


  • Craig

    “Conflict, handled in a mature manner always leads to a deeper more productive relationship.”

    Exactly, with the rub being the “mature manner” part. We have all too few models for constructively addressing conflict, particularly when issues are already under peoples’ skins. I am always grateful to find those who are able to work through the tough spots, see the possibilities for collaboration inside the differences. I learn so much from them!


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