Complexities of Collaboration

Conflict Resolution DonkeyLast week Learning Through Difference, LLC and I had cause for big celebration.  A major client had reached a tentative agreement in their big-deal contract negotiation.  I was thrilled with the team and couldn’t have been prouder of them for the outcome they reached.  As we entered the last day of our negotiations together, I shared the image of the stubborn and then cooperative donkeys with them.  This image is nothing novel yet it’s amazing to me how it still hasn’t fully “made the rounds” in our popular culture. I love this image for its simplicity.  The point it makes is clear.  As my team last week quickly acknowledged, “You get more when you work together!”

While I love this image for its simplicity, it is also its simplicity that I most dislike.  These stubborn donkeys spend one moment excited about the food available to them, two moments fighting against one another to get it, one moment in contemplation, and two moments in cooperation as they enjoy their well-earned spoils.  We love to see the outcome and we’re drawn towards it in re-imagining our own struggles. Sadly, the moment of contemplation, in this portrayal, seems so simple, so easy.  We don’t see the complexity of their exchange, the power dynamics and communication skills at play, the difficulty of taking another person’s (or donkey’s) perspective that allow for their successful outcomes.

It’s truly not enough to just put people in the room, give them this mantra, and watch the positive outcomes roll in.

While it’s totally true that “You get more when you work together,” the actual process of working together is far from easy.  It’s truly not enough to just put people in the room, give them this mantra, and watch the positive outcomes roll in.  In truth, collaboration is difficult and technical work which, I would argue, doesn’t come naturally to us.  When I teach people about the Thomas Kilmann Instrument and better understanding their own conflict styles, many of them want to be collaborative in nature but their reality is different.  Add cultural pressures to perform according to our gender, our workplace, regional, or national (individualistic) culture, and a collaborative approach becomes even more fraught.  Lastly, add trauma, grief, and loss to the equation (experiences that impact us far more broadly than we are willing to acknowledge) and our capacity to collaborate seems to diminish even further.

The thing that makes me most sad in this whole scenario is the degree to which people see lackluster outcomes as either 1. Results of their personal shortcomings (and feel shame about it) or 2. Proof that working together isn’t all that great (and feel self righteous about stubbornly pursuing their own self interest instead of mucking around with that collaboration stuff).  With either outcome (shame or self righteousness), teams are less capable, more jaded,  and less believing of the potential benefits of working together.

In this challenge, in acknowledging the complexity and difficulty of actually working together, I see the value of skilled facilitation.  As much as collaboration is truly an act of labor, so too is facilitation an act of making that labor facil, easy.  Many teams are blessed with facilitators who are able to cajole, direct, and guide their teammates into win-win habits and behaviors.  In other cases, teams push ahead regardless.  They imagine the donkeys who “figure it out” in one straight forward moment, and throw themselves into the work without norms, structures, or skills to safely arrive at a win-win solution.  In these cases, shame or self righteousness prevail as often as truly win-win scenarios and previous time gets wasted.

If you’re on a team who wants to be as smart and capable as the donkeys in my image but find that you’re outcomes are not, in fact, as positive, I hope that you’ll call for a free consultation.  As a facilitator and trainer, I support your win-win outcomes for the task at hand AND leave you with skills and dispositions to better do it yourself the next time around.  Read more about Learning Through Difference services and call me (Carrie Bennett, facilitator, mediator, educator) today!

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