I have been writing, speaking, and teaching about collaboration for over ten years now. However, one of the most interesting and crystallizing moments I have experienced in relation to collaboration occurred in one of the very first summary presentations I did on my class on Collaboration for Cross-Functional Teams for a public audience.
I had completed the presentation, and we were moving into the question period. This group was largely composed of people in technical specialties, though there was one “creativity consultant” in the group. He sat in the middle of the group of about 50 people, and as I asked for questions his long arm slowly raised its hand into the air.
“What do you do if someone wants you to collaborate with them rather than them collaborating with you?” he asked. There was silence in the room.
“Well,” I said, “if that’s what’s going on, collaboration is not happening.”
When I tell this story these days, there is often a smattering of knowing laughter in the room when I quote his question. Perhaps collaboration has become such a buzzword that people are becoming wise to it.
There are definitely many examples of coercive processes that get labeled as collaboration. So, especially under the kind of pressure that most organizational cultures bring to bear these days, how do you determine whether the organizational experience you are having is competitive or collaborative? Here’s a quick guide:
Collaboration is . . .
- Open to a range of right paths toward a negotiated common goal or vision
- Characterized by a power-with model and generally focused on building “more” for all parties
- Integrally trust building
Competition is . . .
- Focused on a single right answer—the one the actor brought to the table.
- Characterized by a power-over model and, often, one-ups-manship
- Usually trust breaking
So, for instance, if you find you are in a nominally collaborative relationship with someone who lectures you and won’t let you get a word in edgewise; someone who says they want to collaborate but finds ways to “pull rank” so that you are encouraged to feel “less than;” someone who tells you what the objective of your work together is rather than stating desirable objectives and then inviting you into a conversation about the best objectives for all concerned—including you; then, you are probably not in a collaborative relationship.
The next question is, why is it that collaboration and competition can feel so strangely similar to some people?