Collabolution 2

So this time “collabolution” is about collaboration and evolution.  No, not the Darwinian kind, but an evolution of the way we think about collaboration itself.  And I’m spurred on by a quote from Nilofer Merchant, who talks about collaboration as “co-laboring,” saying “it’s not about hugs … but about how you solve tough problems that neither party could solve on their own.” (pulled from website – see also her recent post on the “dangers” of collaboration.)

I love that this directly addresses the perception that collaboration is “nice” or “touchy-feely” or some idealized, Pollyanna-ish state.  Because it’s not.  Collaboration is hard work, starting from the absolutely critical and extremely challenging decision to really undertake a collaborative process, where you listen (and care) about what the other party needs or wants, they do the same, and then you do a lot of painstaking work to identify issues, do some brainstorming and problem-solving, evaluate your options, and choose a course of action that works for both of you (and implement it, evaluate what happens, and sometimes, start the whole process over again.)

It takes courage, self-awareness, self-expression, patience, an open and flexible mind (and heart), and a willingness to be creative, to think outside our normal constraints. I disagree with some writers who think it requires admitting weakness (“I have to collaborate, because I have failed to solve this on my own.”)  But I do agree that it requires the strength to admit that no one of us has all the answers, and the trust to submit to the messiness of having the group run the show (instead of my own orderly, secure self).

So collaboration isn’t easy, and it is work.  And, most of the time, it’s worth the work for the benefits that you receive.

But collaboration is not our default approach, and our other, more ingrained modes for dealing with conflict are hard to shake.  What are those approaches?  Well, the Thomas-Kilman model outlines five different orientations for handling conflict:  competition, accommodation, avoidance, compromise and collaboration.   The first three are our cultural defaults.  Most of us can think of countless examples of a bully (maybe with our name on the back of the sweatshirt?!) who keeps pushing until they win or get their way (competition), or situations when we acceded to someone else’s demands without advocating for ourselves (or pushed someone else into that situation), or circumstances when we simply avoided dealing with a conflict all together.

Sometimes, at least in the short term, those strategies work.  But almost more importantly than whether they work or don’t (and they often don’t), those strategies are ingrained into our institutions – our so-called justice and legal systems, our sports, our religions, our electoral system, our schools, and so on.  We breathe these options in every day, through the media, through our entertainment, through many of the social interactions that we have.  No wonder that these win/lose and avoidance approaches are our fall-backs, our defaults when it come to conflict.

And no wonder that the other two approaches get such a bad name or at least create such feelings of ambivalence.  We’re not used to either compromising or collaborating in much of our daily personal or business or social lives, and we fear that by compromising, we’re sure to lose out (check out “Weak” Collaboration).  For many of us, compromise and collaboration are last-ditch efforts we try when we’re losing, and the relationship or situation is already pretty bad and disintegrating; and in such settings, is it any wonder that working out a win-win sometimes “doesn’t work,” thereby reinforcing the doubts and ambivalence?

We hear examples of these attitudes in our language every day.  People talk about negotiation of their divorce or child-rearing agreements, and they’ll resignedly admit that they had to compromise and say that of course nobody was really happy in the end.  Or activists or business people will say that they won’t settle for a partial win, certainly wouldn’t be caught dead in discussions with the enemy or person who disagrees with them.   Or, in what passes for political discussion these days, we ask how willing candidates will be to compromise or work across the aisle, and then in the next sentence we want to know how our candidate will make sure we win … even though it’s impossible to simultaneously compete and work collaboratively.

So what would it take to change this perception about collaboration?  I believe that most changes in behavior or outcomes have to begin with a change in attitude; you can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it.  Which is why I think that what has to happen at this point is an evolution, a setting aside of an outmoded attitude towards “co-laboring” with others.

In some parts of American culture, if we were to say that something were focused, results-oriented, sustainable, effective, and a result of hard work (which we tend to think is good, at least until we have to do it), it would be a good thing.  That’s collaboration – focused, results-oriented, sustainable, effective, a result of hard work … a helpful, practical tool that shouldn’t be relegated like an after-thought to the second or third tier of our toolbox.  What if that’s what came to mind as we thought about collaboration?

Take it a step further, step outside our cultural predisposition towards winning, losing or avoiding for a moment and imagine this:  What if, in a given situation, we really were better off by talking with the other party than not? What if a cold-eyed look at our bottom line said that we got more of our needs met, both in the short- and long-term, by going beyond win/lose? And what if we might even get more than what we initially imagined by working together, that the whole might indeed be greater than the sum of the parts?  Even the most hard-nosed, rational person couldn’t disagree that in those scenarios compromise and collaboration are worth it.  And for those of who believe that relationships are critical to our happiness and success in this world, the benefits are even greater.

Sometimes attitudes can take a while to shift, but they won’t budge if we don’t bring some new life into how we look at a situation.  So take some time in the next few days to notice how you see our default approaches to conflict playing out, to notice when you’re opting to avoid or win (or lose) a conflict.  Maybe offer a challenge when someone speaks derisively about collaboration, give an example of when working together with someone brought you a concrete outcome that was better than you could have done on your own.

Here’s to a new form for collaboration!

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Filed under Collabolution, Conflict, Intercultural

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