In our post-election world, it seems challenging to imagine a truly collaborative “working across the aisle” while we collectively grapple with the dismay that half of this country “isn’t like me,” “doesn’t get it,” and “is just wrong.” (Check out the recent This American Life show on political divides – whew, sobering.)
Makes me think about what motivates people to collaborate, and to consider whether there is anything we can do to strengthen our political resolve to work together with our differences.
Motivation can be based on internal or external factors. On the internal side, we often feel motivated to do something 1) because it meets a personal need (for example, getting food on the table or doing something that makes us healthy), 2) because it feels good to do it (it’s fun, fulfills a duty, shows altruism, etc.), or 3) because there is a strong sense that a personal need is not being met (for example, unfair working conditions, threats to human rights or pollution of our common resources.)
External motivation usually comes in the form of 1) acquiring or maintaining status (reputation, social connections, etc.), 2) receiving financial compensation or other concrete benefits (for example, getting money or access to services, or cultivating networks that will lead to getting more funding or business in the future), or 3) being included in a group (for example, going along with what we think others are doing or want us to do.) We may also feel more externally motivated to do something when it seems easy (there are support systems and tools, and the way forward is clear), and when we see leaders doing the same thing.
So, using these factors, how are we doing in the political sphere on the internal and external motivation to collaborate? Not too surprisingly, the current scene looks discouraging. In terms of external motivators, the financial pressure to adopt particular policies or practices and the peer pressure to maintain party loyalties are forces working against collaboration. Similarly, it’s easy to imagine that our elected officials want to maintain their high-status positions, the financial perks, and the potentially lucrative and secure positions they’ll get once their political careers are over … and that those benefits often come at the price of working within the contentious, non-collaborative status quo.
And while there is some potential prestige from working across the aisle, it’s not easy – there aren’t easy channels or venues for cross-party collaboration, and very few political leaders to emulate in that arena. You could argue that the current threat of a “fiscal cliff” provides some incentive for working together, but it doesn’t sound like that’s resulting in anything more than the same tired, positional soundbites … could it be that the perceived threat isn’t strong enough to inspire collaborative action?
So what’s got me intrigued is whether folks like you and me can do anything to influence politicians’ perceptions of their internal or external motivations to collaborate. How about recognition or appreciation for any even slightly collaborative action or statement by our representatives, and some fun way of expressing that recognition or appreciation? Depending on who it is, what can we appeal to in order to push for a more collaborative approach … a sense of duty to their constituents, the satisfaction of “helping,” a strong sense of fairness, the reputation as a person who gets things done, etc.?
And on the external side, would a grassroots collaboration campaign diminish or counteract the powerful financial incentives towards the status quo? What if we made it clear that we wouldn’t re-elect folks who don’t collaborate, that business and other support for their campaigns comes at the price of committing to cross-political divide work?
What if we trained all our young people in the art and science of collaboration, and tested based on our ability to work well on teams and in groups? What if we awarded an annual collaboration prize, offered scholarships for the study and application of collaborative strategies, created financial incentives for sharing knowledge and using interdisciplinary teams?
What if we made our elected officials mention one thing they liked about their opponent’s proposal before they offered a criticism, made them identify one positive attribute of that opponent, told them they had to check to make sure they’d understood what the other person said and count to three before they responded?
What if we paired up supposed opponents and asked them to draft three options they could live with for every policy challenge? What if we all had to come up with fifteen options for resolving any problem, without criticizing a one, before we could talk about choosing a solution?
Kind of fun, don’t you think? I like this “what if” game – it feeds my creativity and inspiration, and yes, it motivates me! So join the collaboration party – what are your collaborative “what if’s,” what motivates you?