On Vertical Collaboration

I’ve been think­ing late­ly about “ver­ti­cal col­lab­o­ra­tion.” Ver­ti­cal col­lab­o­ra­tion is what hap­pens between peo­ple when there is a report­ing rela­tion­ship of some kind and a pow­er dif­fer­en­tial. Col­lab­o­ra­tion is often asso­ci­at­ed with equal pow­er and sta­tus, a “peer group” of some kind. But col­lab­o­ra­tion is also a skill pre­em­i­nent­ly to be mas­tered between the lay­ers in orga­ni­za­tions, as well. What I know about this area is that there are many unique ways to fail, while the way to suc­ceed looks pret­ty con­sis­tent. And since my inter­est is in lead­ers, I devote this dis­cus­sion to the way the per­son with more pow­er can fail or succeed.

Suc­cess actu­al­ly is fair­ly easy to describe: two peo­ple in an open, trust-based, adult-to-adult dis­cus­sion of oper­a­tions, improve­ments, and projects that they both have a stake in. They work togeth­er (the for­mal mean­ing of col­lab­o­ra­tion) to decide how to address both tech­ni­cal issues and peo­ple issues.

  • They make agree­ments or promis­es and fol­low-up on them.
  • They under­stand that some things are nego­tiable and some things are not.
  • They have lit­tle in their rela­tion­ship that is undis­cuss­able, includ­ing one anoth­er’s per­for­mance and style. Yes, that involves the “sub­or­di­nate” giv­ing feed­back and ask­ing hard ques­tions just as much as the “boss.”
  • While this image is easy to describe, it can be hard to live out in the real world. Where it works well, it offers a mech­a­nism for effec­tive del­e­ga­tion and own­er­ship of the work, fre­quent­ly known as account­abil­i­ty. It is the basis of a ver­sa­tile part­ner­ship and mod­el for work­ing togeth­er among oth­er mem­bers of a team. It can be best actu­al­ized through reg­u­lar meet­ings between boss and employ­ee that are devot­ed to help­ing one anoth­er be as effec­tive as pos­si­ble rather than per­pet­u­at­ing that eval­u­a­tive tone used com­mon­ly by both sides to pri­vate­ly assess how well the oth­er is per­form­ing. In this pos­i­tive rela­tion­ship between two peo­ple, there is no one for­mu­la­ic way to do things: some tasks are appro­pri­ate­ly del­e­gat­ed, some are appro­pri­ate­ly not, depend­ing on the task and the per­son. The leader may flex­i­bly offer non-direc­tive coach­ing one day, more direc­tive the next, by virtue of the issue at hand and the employ­ees’ needs. It is my sense that many peo­ple expe­ri­ence pro­duc­tive rela­tion­ships of this kind, but when it fails, or a part of it fails, it is a con­spic­u­ous cause of lousy morale and poor work, and often becomes a trig­ger for mistrust.

    So here are the ways it fails:


    The dia­gram sug­gests that the leader can fail in at least four dif­fer­ent ways linked to per­son­al style. There are two dimen­sions to con­sid­er: lev­el of direc­tive­ness, and lev­el of del­e­ga­tion. A leader who is too non-direc­tive may be great at ask­ing ques­tions, teach­ing using a Socrat­ic method, and encour­ag­ing oth­ers to think for them­selves, but if this is over­done, employ­ees feel they are sim­ply not get­ting their ques­tions answered. This is the clas­sic rou­tine about the employ­ee ask­ing the boss what time it is only to be ques­tioned in return, “Well, what time do you think it is?” On the oth­er side of the coin is the leader who is too direc­tive. Even when the employ­ee knows the answer to his/her own ques­tion, the boss is ready to step in with a solu­tion. This gen­er­al­ly pro­motes peo­ple not think­ing for them­selves and rein­forces the ancient notion that the job of employ­ees is to ask ques­tions and the boss’s job is to answer them all from an expert standpoint.

    As to lev­el of del­e­ga­tion, a leader who holds on to too many tasks may be reserv­ing his or her pow­er to make all the key deci­sions, but pret­ty much ensures that he/she will be over­whelmed while won­der­ing why oth­ers are not pick­ing up on their respon­si­bil­i­ties. And the leader who del­e­gates every­thing away has lit­tle chance to engage in an lev­el of guid­ance and appro­pri­ate prob­lem-solv­ing that active­ly helps peo­ple get their jobs done.

    The inter­sec­tion of these dimen­sions cre­ates four com­mon pat­terns: lead­ers who block, aban­don, micro­man­age, or dic­tate. The dia­gram defines a com­mon trait for each. Here are some (over-sim­pli­fied) descrip­tions of each type.

    Block­ers fun­da­men­tal­ly delay the deci­sion-mak­ing process by reserv­ing the deci­sion for them­selves but then not mak­ing it. This can involve peo­ple who are, for exam­ple, high­ly ana­lyt­i­cal and need a great deal of data in order to feel good about pro­ceed­ing. It can also involve peo­ple who are new or inse­cure in their jobs or more expe­ri­enced peo­ple who are per­fec­tion­ists of one kind or anoth­er. Block­ers can be very well inten­tioned and have a pow­er­ful sense of per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty for out­comes while being deeply con­cerned about wrong or sub-opti­mal choices.

    Aban­don­ers are lead­ers who oper­ate from the con­cept that the best boss­es empow­er peo­ple by giv­ing away all of their deci­sions and guid­ance. respon­si­bil­i­ties. These can be peo­ple who real­ly believe in oth­ers as a core val­ue, but also might include peo­ple who don’t know what to do them­selves or don’t actu­al­ly wish to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for the per­for­mance of those who report to them. Aban­don­ers may have bet­ter things to do with their time — at least in their own minds — and may be very hard on peo­ple with­out mean­ing to be. They may also be very sur­prised when inter­nal prob­lems final­ly get their atten­tion because at core what they learned to do is ignore what’s happening.

    Micro-man­agers are lead­ers who may capa­bly del­e­gate but too often focus on the flaws in their employ­ees’ work. High­ly eval­u­a­tive, they may offer praise but nev­er­the­less dis­cour­age peo­ple with an improp­er bal­ance of crit­i­cism to pos­i­tive com­ments. These are folks who like peo­ple who think like them and do things as they would do them and feel it is their duty to tell peo­ple how far off they are from their own ideals, no mat­ter how small that dif­fer­ence might be. The under­ly­ing mes­sage is usu­al­ly, “You’re not doing it as well as I could do it, so maybe I should be doing it for you — after­all, your work is real­ly just a reflec­tion of me.”

    Final­ly, Dic­ta­tors hold onto their tasks and sim­ply direct peo­ple when they want some­thing done. This assumes employ­ees are inca­pable of think­ing for them­selves and need some­one to tell them just what to do. Except for brand new employ­ees who are on their first few days of a job or under dire con­di­tions of an emer­gency this approach usu­al­ly cre­ates sig­nif­i­cant resent­ment. The Dic­ta­tor treats work as a demand, how­ev­er sub­tly defined, that requires lit­tle inde­pen­dence and great control.

    The anti­dote to every one of these fail­ures is true engage­ment between the two par­ties, one of whom may have a lot more for­mal pow­er. Each of the ways to fail rep­re­sents an avoid­ance of gen­uine relat­ing between two com­plex human beings. Each, in its way, rep­re­sents a fail­ure of trust and mutu­al feed­back and an avoid­ance of imme­di­ate con­tact. That orga­ni­za­tion­al lead­ers often find it more com­fort­able to avoid feed­back from employ­ees, and employ­ees find it safer not to offer it, makes it easy to slide off the pin­na­cle known as true part­ner­ship. This is a del­i­cate point. It isn’t that a leader who is a Block­er should become more of a Micro-man­ag­er, or an Aban­don­er should become more like a Dic­ta­tor. The goal sim­ply rep­re­sents a dif­fer­ent cat­e­go­ry of human inter­ac­tion. And what is that “dif­fer­ent cat­e­go­ry?” If I had to give one word for it, it would be inti­mate. It’s a more inti­mate place where gen­uine, full con­nec­tion exists, where there may be con­flict or deeply shared pur­pose, ten­sion or align­ment, mis­trust or mutu­al respect. You won’t know what it is until you are in it. Can you con­trol all that? Make the good stuff hap­pen just because you want to? Of course not. It will always take two to tan­go. But a leader can improve by know­ing where he/she typ­i­cal­ly falls off the pin­na­cle — where the old pat­tern is and espe­cial­ly how that pat­tern plays out under stress — and by mov­ing, instead, toward the bless­ings and real­i­ties of true relationship.


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    • Nice post. Dic­ta­tors do hold fail­ure in their hands. Once they start­ed demand­ing things on peo­ple, their is no longer col­lab­o­ra­tion between them. Their deci­sion is the only thing that matters.

    • Inter­est­ing per­spec­tive, Dan, and one which is often ignored in con­ven­tion­al lead­er­ship devel­op­ment, even though it’s easy to see those four quad­rants played out in orga­ni­za­tions time and again.

      Per­haps one of the nec­es­sary con­di­tions for suc­cess is that the one in the tra­di­tion­al posi­tion of pow­er has to believe that it’s tru­ly okay to have a ful­ly col­lab­o­ra­tive rela­tion­ship, and that means let­ting go of some of both the out­ward show and the inward atti­tudes of power. 

      One of the fac­tors which can get in the way of this is the fear on the part of the ‘leader’ that the ‘employee’ is after his or her job. If that dynam­ic exists then it’s doubt­ful whether real col­lab­o­ra­tion can hap­pen – there will always be a bar­ri­er, a rea­son for the ‘leader’ to keep the ‘worker’ in his/her place, and for the work­er to sub­vert the wish­es of the leader.

      But in the absence of that com­bi­na­tion of fear and ambi­tion, great things are pos­si­ble. I’ve worked in some very suc­cess­ful col­lab­o­ra­tive rela­tion­ships with peo­ple more senior in the peck­ing order than myself, and I think the one com­mon fac­tor has been a will­ing­ness by both par­ties to be open, take risks in self-dis­clo­sure, so that lit­tle by lit­tle each gains a deep­er under­stand­ing of the oth­er – or in oth­er words, exact­ly as you say, the rela­tion­ship becomes more inti­mate, in the sense that it’s no longer a pure­ly boss-work­er rela­tion­ship but has broad­ened to encom­pass much more of our being.

    • Andy — thank you. To me, the beau­ti­ful thing in what you are say­ing is that each of the peo­ple allows a rigid def­i­n­i­tion of role and posi­tion (boss or work­er) to dimin­ish in favor of a deep­er state of know­ing one anoth­er. That’s always been my expe­ri­ence, too. Beyond the roles, we can let our human­i­ty emerge and cease to be a threat to one anoth­er — whether that threat comes from the ambi­tions of the employ­ee or the con­trol needs of the boss. I like to imag­ine a con­ver­sa­tion in which an employ­ee acknowl­edges that he or she would like the boss’ job and then togeth­er they form a “devel­op­ment alliance” to help the employ­ee achieve that end — not nec­es­sar­i­ly through suc­ces­sion into the boss’ job, but pro­mo­tion into a posi­tion, per­haps in the same orga­ni­za­tion, per­haps some­place else. I like to imag­ine a con­ver­sa­tion in which the boss acknowl­edges his or her con­trol needs and the two peo­ple then engage in a sup­port­ive and hon­est dia­logue about the boss’ own learn­ing curve and what will facil­i­tate under­stand­ing and new behav­ior in their relationship. 

      It seems to me that the tra­di­tion­al cul­ture of hier­ar­chies often makes avoid­ance or dis­missal of one anoth­er all too easy, with con­tempt just around the cor­ner — based on a worst case image of how things could turn out. I believe this means that we have to know our­selves and one anoth­er well in order for real respect to flour­ish — and take the chances that self-dis­clo­sure and con­nec­tion offer. We have to set the orga­ni­za­tion aside in a sense, all its rules, roles, and expec­ta­tions that form the ini­tial con­tain­er for get­ting work done, and embrace the risk to actu­al­ly meet anoth­er per­son. This chal­lenge can be regard­ed as a gift or a curse — and indeed it may be a lit­tle of each for “meet­ing anoth­er” is not free of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty and con­flict — but it always offers itself as the oppor­tu­ni­ty to be gen­uine­ly in touch with life and to dis­cov­er what two or three or four of us or four hun­dred can actu­al­ly accom­plish together.

    • Thanks Dan. It’s some­thing I’d like to say more about it but I’m up against time con­straints — just about to start pack­ing for going away on hol­i­day tomorrow!

      The way in which organ­i­sa­tion struc­tures and cul­tures affect peo­ples inter­ac­tions in organ­i­sa­tions is fas­ci­nat­ing. So much poten­tial gets lost. The organ­i­sa­tion I work for at the moment — the BBC — would make an excel­lent case study, it is so rich in so many exam­ples of both effec­tive and lim­it­ing struc­tures. In some ways, heirar­chy retains a lot of pow­er, yet there is also a rich web of cross-con­nec­tions which com­plete­ly ignore heirar­chy — up to a point. I’d not thought about it until your post, but I sus­pect the area in which we are weak­est is indeed that of ver­ti­cal col­lab­o­ra­tion. Cross-func­tion­al col­lab­o­ra­tion works well at the oper­a­tional lev­els, but fur­ther up the peck­ing order, heirar­chy, pol­i­tics and pow­er strug­gles dom­i­nate. Where ver­ti­cal col­lab­o­ra­tion may well have the great­est val­ue is where it bridges those two halves of the cul­ture, and indeed that’s where two of my own per­son­al exam­ples have been successful.

      Maybe if I get bored with Scot­land I’ll give it some more thought over the next cou­ple of weeks!

    • You are rais­ing a provoca­tive issue, Andy: how col­lab­o­ra­tion changes the high­er one goes in a tra­di­tion­al hier­ar­chy. I’ve often seen very dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions relat­ed to ver­ti­cal col­lab­o­ra­tion between a pres­i­dent, CEO, or COO and the exec­u­tive team, and between mem­bers of the exec­u­tive group and their own direct man­age­r­i­al reports. In fact, I think I agree that the most chal­leng­ing prob­lems are, as you say, at the inter­face between political/strategic and oper­a­tional lev­els of the orga­ni­za­tion. The types: aban­don­er, block­er, micro-man­ag­er, dic­ta­tor are cer­tain­ly more obvi­ous there and the stakes are often very high in terms of careers, rep­u­ta­tions, and pub­lic expo­sure. Are top peo­ple typ­i­cal­ly less good at ver­ti­cal col­lab­o­ra­tion than oth­er man­agers; less effec­tive, for exam­ple, than cross-func­tion­al col­lab­o­ra­tors else­where in the orga­ni­za­tion? Yes, I think it is often so, though not always. Big pow­er and respon­si­bil­i­ty seem to work against close, mutu­al prob­lem-solv­ing because of the com­plex vagaries of high-lev­el self-pro­tec­tion. Deflec­tion and “spin” are the norm. But this is not always so, and more enlight­ened lead­ers are con­stant­ly aware, learn­ing, and work­ing to break down arti­fi­cial bar­ri­ers in their relationships.

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