Category Archives: Conflict

What if .. we were motivated to collaborate?

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?


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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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“Weak” collaboration?

Over the last couple weeks I’ve seen notices and advertisements for four or five different groups sponsoring events meant to bridge the political divide, to help us get past the polarized talking at each other or so-called debate that has come to dominate our political scene.  (For example, check out On Being’s Civil Conversations Project, based on the important work of Public Conversations Project.)

Healing and hopeful initiatives, these.  Perhaps they will begin to alleviate the despair and sense of powerlessness and disconnection I and others sometimes feel about bringing collaborative approaches to the traditional political arena.  But, my despairing self wonders, “what good is it if the folks who REALLY need this aren’t listening and won’t collaborate?”

I get a related question fairly frequently when I do communication and conflict resolution training – a participant asks, “if I get this “win/win” concept, that’s all well and good, but if the other person doesn’t, how can it work?”  And the question came up in one of my first exposures to the study of conflict.  It was through game theory, looking at the statistical probability that two parties in a conflict will choose to advance their mutual, vs. their individual, best interests … which can lead to the question, won’t my willingness to collaborate cost me all that I hold important?

So that’s it – we fear that moves to collaboration will be seen as weakness, and that moving towards collaboration may make it less likely that our basic needs will be met.

So what makes collaboration worth it, why should we be fostering collaboration in our civic and political life?  Here are a few of my answers:

1) The alternative (competition, aggression, one party wins and the other loses) doesn’t work.  Just look at the current Washington gridlock for a great example.

2) Non-collaboration is inherently unstable and wasteful – there’s always a “loser” who increasingly has little to nothing to lose and every interest in upsetting the current order.  Stability in and of itself may not be an end goal, but if all of our efforts are geared towards either defending or upsetting the current structure, we just can’t be focusing our best attention and resources on creating the kind of world we want to live in.

3) Our world is too complex and interconnected for simplistic “I or my party wins” approaches – with serious and challenging issues like climate change, sustainability, inclusion, violence and war, and (you fill in the blank), we need all hands on deck to contribute their creativity, ideas and most importantly, actions towards solutions.  Whatever solutions (or non-solutions), we ALL will feel the effects.

4) Non-collaboration maintains and creates injustice.  As long as we act as though those with more power will have more of their needs met, as long as bullies and plutocrats get their way, we are all at risk.  And if we put on our blinders and think, oh at least it’s not me, we’re only fooling ourselves – we’re next in line. (Martin Niemoller: “First they came for the ____ and I didn’t speak out, then they came for ____ and I didn’t speak out … and then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.”)

5) It’s a myth that collaboration means “I get less than what I want.”  More on this in another post, but collaboration means that I express fully what my needs and preferred strategies are for getting those needs met.  You do the same (and I listen carefully, deeply), and we together come up solutions that meet both needs. As a strategy, collaboration is more likely than non-collaboration to help me get my needs met.

6) And more personally, if I live based on my fear, I’m not really living.  That is, if the “other guy” doesn’t want to act like I want her or him to act, should that dictate my approach or actions?  And besides, do I believe myself so powerless that it would be impossible for my collaborative approach to change the situation or the other person’s approach?  Maybe my taking that first collaboration step won’t result in my ideal strategy or outcome … but maybe it will, and even if it doesn’t in the short term, just being as collaborative as I’m able creates the kind of world I want to live in.  And in my experience I’m much more likely to feel good about getting my needs met by acting in a way that affirms everyone’s needs.

Anything you’d add?

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Cultural fluency … beyond international business

From a quick look around the internet, you might think that cultural fluency was a tool wielded largely by international business folks.  I wouldn’t disagree that business success depends in part on cultural fluency, but I am disappointed that cultural fluency might be seen as limited to the business world and a few other realms like human resources offices and diversity organizations.  (Not to mention that “cultural fluency” might be (mis)-interpreted as simply knowing whether to shake hands, make eye contact, be more fluid with time or more respectful of the “big boss” … but that’s another story.)

My angry faceLet’s look at a non-business example —  awhile back, I got pretty angry during a meeting to plan some upcoming events.  First knee-jerk reaction, I blamed “them” for being disorganized and difficult.  Next came blaming myself, wondering what I should be doing better.  And then (and when I’m lucky, this transition is quick!), I move out of the blame realm altogether and can get curious about what’s happening.

On the one hand, this meeting’s participants were individuals, with unique combinations of traits and behaviors and attitudes based on all the individual experiences they’d each personally had.  But thinking about this unsatisfactory meeting with that individual “personality” lens can leave me feeling discouraged … they’re just difficult people, we have a personality clash, it’s just the way that individual is (or was born) … nothing to be done, just grit your teeth and move on.

Lens, curiosityBut what if I considered one of those individuals from the lens of the groups they belong to, their social identities, their cultures?  Let’s imagine that one of the  (fictional) participants was female, about twenty years older than me, an experienced “expert” on the topic at hand, a freelancer, and has spent considerable time living outside of her home country.  Each of those groups (females, people of a certain age, experts in this field, freelancers, expats, etc.) has its own culture, which would give a very particular spin to how this person approached the meeting I was in.

And it might be that given the type of meeting we were in, her freelance culture was near the top of the list of possible influences she might have felt.  And what if I imagine that  her freelancer lens made her value networking in this particular setting?

(This is all supposition, mind you …  without asking, I would have no idea which of the many, many identities and cultural labels I might have been tempted to assign to the people involved would have been ones they embraced at least partially, or ones they thought were prominent that day during the meeting  … and which ones were offensive or completely out to lunch!  But I am certain that whichever cultures were in the room that day, they affected how we conducted our meeting.)

So how does focusing on cultures affect my attitude toward the situation?  For me, one of the first things that happens is that it depersonalizes the situation … oh, this is about culture, a culture is not right or wrong, we’re just each seeing a different part of the elephant (know that story?).

Then I can say, OK, so from her freelancer lens, those troubling detours about connecting with other groups make sense.   We can come up with some ideas about how we might approach getting her networking needs met … and then do the same for me (my technocrat self seeing a long agenda and not much time for the meeting was valuing efficiency and clarity of focus – so how might my needs be met?).

I could have extended curiosity and creativity to this person as an individual, but I might miss out on a piece of who she is (we are at least in part who we associate with, no?) and I personally sometimes need the shift in focus to get past the “difficult personality” obstacle.  And to the degree I have any information about a particular culture, a cultural fluency lens helps me anticipate what attitudes, needs or approaches I’m dealing with.  Even if I’m wrong in my reflections, going through this thinking makes me curious, more open to understanding what is going on for others and for myself.

Group, culture of duckiesIf we think of culture as the shared understandings of a group that shapes who we think we are and how we interpret what happens, then all of us are interacting with lots of different cultures every single day, in every setting.  There’s the culture of our book or social club, the supermarket or church, our work or volunteer place, our family, our socio-economic class, our gender … and the list goes on and on and on, far beyond nationality, ethnicity or color of ducky.

I recently gave a workshop on culture, conflict and identity, inspired in part by Conflict Across Cultures: A Unique Experience of Bridging Differences by Michelle LeBaron and Venashri Pillay, and co-authored by Tatsushi Arai, a professor of mine from SIT Graduate Institute.  Their inspiring and practical model of developing “cultural fluency” (greatly simplified, and as I understand it) involves:

  1. Building knowledge and understanding of other cultures,
  2. Recognizing the embedded meanings in our own cultures (and the impact those meanings have),
  3. Learning to express (and assist others in expressing) underlying cultural influences, and then
  4. Negotiating and acting effectively in cross-cultural situations.

I love that this book was written by a culturally diverse team, and that part of the book is grounded in their own experience of learning to work well together.  Just as they had to go through these cultural fluency steps to successfully publish a great book, I could probably improve my next meeting with my group by learning more about, and articulating the impact of, my and other participants’ cultures in relation to the meeting’s agenda topics.

Will I use my cultural fluency all the time with everyone I meet? Of course not.  And yet developing cultural fluency skills is critical to effective collaboration in whatever the setting, and practice helps, no matter whether it’s at a neighborhood gathering, talk with a partner, political meeting … or even in a business negotiation.

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