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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