Collaborate with You—or Me?

I’ve been working with collaborative practices on teams for a number of years now as well as teaching Collaboration for Cross-Functional Teams in local universities and have seen and heard a number of perspectives on and reactions to the term “collaboration.” Some people think of collaboration in terms of “collaborating with the enemy,” which is a very interesting perspective and perhaps a holdover from World War II when collaboration seems to have held that dominant connotation. But, perhaps the most evocative story that comes to my mind about collaboration actually took place more than ten years ago when I was speaking at a local gathering of technical professionals.

I had just completed my presentation in what came to be the curriculum I have taught for years now when a lone person sitting in the center of the audience raised his hand. He was, I remember, a creativity consultant. He said, quite soberly as in the manner of all good straight men, “What if someone wants you to collaborate with them rather than for them to collaborate with you.”

The audience, of course, after a moment of silence, laughed knowingly. This is all too often how collaboration is misunderstood, and what the situation questioner was representing is really a combination of compromise, cooperation, and, likely, networking that is being encouraged. True collaboration is:

  • A process that utilizes the best in skills and resources that all parties bring to a project.
  • Fostered by a dialogic mindset.
  • Supported by a set of facilitative interpersonal skills.

In true collaboration, it can be difficult for any one collaborator to point to a specific piece of the outcome of the collaboration and claim it as his or her own. The outcome of a collaboration very often does not look like what any particular party to the collaboration had in mind as the outcome when he or she came into the collaboration, but satisfies the key interests of all collaborators.

Collaboration can be scary and requires a great deal of trust, which is clear when you review the previous paragraph. So fostering trust is key both to launching a collaboration and to maintaining it. Interestingly, a competitive stance at any point in the process on the part of any collaborator can undermine the entire process unless trust is re-established. Competition breaks trust inasmuch as, in contrast to collaboration, the competitive stance values the interests of the competitor above those of any other stakeholder.

We live in a dominantly competitive culture and competition is encouraged in the US from a very young age. For that reason, if for none other, it can be very difficult for us to spot when we are behaving competitively. We might spot that trust is broken, but we may not realize that it is because we have just taken a competitive stance while professing to be collaborating. Unless that is looked at and talked through, it may be very difficult to either repair the trust or continue to authentically collaborate, and more and more parties to the collaboration may retreat to a more competitive stance, thereby hindering the entire collaboration.

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