The Dark Side of Collaboration

Written by Jamie Notter on January 9, 2017

If I had to pick ONE single “core value” that I thought would be mostly likely to show up on an association’s core value list, “Collaboration” would be at least towards the top of my list. I mean, who doesn’t like collaboration, right?

Well, I lead a senior management retreat for a client one time, and in a rare moment of truth-telling, one of the members of the management team said something along these lines (I’m paraphrasing here):

For me, collaboration means interference. Collaboration means I have to stop what I’m working on—something I know to be delivering great value to this organization—and instead spend my time working on one of my colleague’s projects. I know deep down that there is value to collaboration, but the truth is it gets in the way of me delivering results that the rest of you are counting on me to deliver.

In this particular case, the management team used this as an opportunity to dig into the real value of collaboration. They recognized that to meet the increasingly fast pace of change among their members, the collaboration—the interference really—was, in fact, worth it. If they stayed in their lanes, they were going to miss opportunities and fall behind.

But too often in cultures, we fail to acknowledge the shadow side of our values. We fail to recognize that in a complex world, declaring high-level values is not enough. You have to really wrestle it to the ground and clarify exactly how a core value like collaboration needs to be addressed. For example:

  • Everyone can’t collaborate with everyone on everything—that would be too slow. Does your culture make it clear whose input is needed for a decision to be made, versus who is responsible for the decision, versus who needs to be informed (see the RACI model)?
  • How much do egos matter? If your culture allows people to push back based on their own personal ego demands, collaboration will look one way. If your culture insists that egos be left at the door, collaboration will look very different. How does it need to be for you?
  • Do you value facilitation skills? The root of the word facilitation is the Latin word for “easy,” and I’m guessing you’d rather have collaboration be easy. So are you teaching people facilitation skills? Does that matter in your culture? Is that capacity equally distributed throughout all parts of your organization?

I think collaboration is critical. It’s one of the 8 core Culture Markers that we measure in our culture assessment. But even if you think it’s important, you have more work to do in figuring out exactly why and exactly how you’ll make it happen.