Why The Heck Is Collaboration So Hard?

This blog post expands on one of my points of my talk at the Singapore Management University earlier in March 2014.

When I’m working with managers on their development as leaders, the challenge of collaboration comes up frequently. It has made me think about this age-old question: Why the heck is collaboration so hard? I want to take a closer look at the concept of Collaborative Leadership for a couple of reasons: first, the research that I have done in this area supports an interactive course in Collaborative Leadership I’m currently teaching at the Bellevue College and second, it is often considered to be a representation of the feminine way to lead.

While most companies proclaim “collaboration” as one of their values, I believe it is one of the most misunderstood and underutilized concepts of our time. Many react to the word emotionally: some even consider it a waste of time, a feel-good “kumbaya” circle that is an ineffective way to produce results. However, if we took a closer look at what “collaboration” actually requires, we might conclude that it is hardcore stuff that has bottom-line effects.

The challenge begins with the word “collaboration” itself. We think we know what it means and we believe that if we mastered it, we’d be far more focused, more productive and enjoy working together for common goals. Leaders know that it would be a powerful way to enhance productivity but more often than not, we fail at it. Just look how miserable the results have been on the political front and how fiercely we compete with each other for diminishing resources.

Often the first meeting set for “collaboration” brings up the worst kinds of behaviors in us. Sometimes participants exhibit not so subtle behaviors that discourage collaboration: sarcastic comments, not listening, pushing for personal agendas, big egos compete, stonewalling, envy or other power struggles… Practicing collaboration is tough. One reason for all these negative behaviors to show up and collaboration to fail is the fact that we fear scarcity. When we are afraid there isn’t enough time or enough money to go around we skip working in collaborative ways. A scarcity mindset leads us to fight for survival, competing for the survival of the fittest rather than cooperation.

As a vice honorary consul I’ve been a witness to many diplomatic efforts in securing cooperation. The internationally developed protocols are created to guarantee a smooth working partnership.  This “polite society behavior” is building a foundation for trusting relationships. They must be nurtured over time because effective collaboration does not emerge from thin air. Those relationships are put to test when disasters hit – be it wars between factions or countries or missing airline searches like the one in Malaysia. That’s when our ability to collaborate is truly called forth.

All this said, it gives me great hope that a new generation of collaborators is emerging. Just recently, I was invited to participate in the Opportunity Collaboration program – an “unconference” which focuses on forging working relationships between leaders of organizations whose mission is to create a more equitable and sustainable world. opportunity collaborationI’ve also witnessed a new surge in the interest of “how to develop collaboration skills” when companies ask me to design leadership training and coaching for them. The diminishing resources and rapidly changing world demands not just networking but working nets!  The remarkable Women in Innovation Summit 2012 would not have been possible without a cadre of committed collaborators who selflessly worked together for months to create the most successful conference experience. It was both humbling and inspiring when so many people approached me with: “I want to help. What can I do?” It’s a great opening for any relationship. Have you tried it lately?

What are your examples of successful collaboration?

In the next post I will outline the three aspects of collaboration that anyone in leadership or in training for leadership will benefit from understanding.