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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