Organisations concerned about sustainability are increasingly asking for help to improve their internal collaborative behaviours.
In my work with them, however, I observe that people continue to have difficulty in collaborating outside of very specific team objectives. Even within teams, generating a collaborative mind-set rather than an exchange of opinions is often a real challenge and is a subject that has been talked about and taught for centuries. I want to focus on one aspect of the collaborative mind-set: which is the existence of individual competitive feelings and how respecting and expressing those feelings may help us to be collaborative.
At the organisational level one of the additional challenges to a collaborative approach is a set of constraints such as a particular organisational structure or system. Structures and systems can be changed and often are, but this often just results in the creation of new boundaries and constraints – they have simply been shifted around the organisation. Constraints and boundaries between groups are a fact of life and can often inhibit collaborative behaviour as the groups compete with each other – for resources, for rewards, for attention etc. Indeed often the reward systems within organisations are designed to reward competitive behaviour which militates against collaboration. However when cross group collaboration becomes an imperative, is there a way to encourage a sharing mind-set without changing the existing organisational constraints?
I would like to answer this from both a personal perspective and from my experience as a coach working with teams.
The spirit of collaboration means a great deal to me. When I experience or observe two or more individuals work on something together and produce something new, however small, I feel joy rise in me and I want to clap and celebrate. And at the same time I feel elation when I am recognised for a personal achievement and when I feel I have been the best at something. Indeed I sometimes smile to myself when I become aware of wanting to be the ‘best at collaboration’. How can I resolve the tension between these two drives? In the collaborative situation if I suppress my competitive feelings this suppression makes me feel and appear less authentic and therefore engenders mistrust. The lack of trust then makes a collaborative and creative working environment more difficult to achieve. In my experience a way forward has been to share my feelings of competitiveness.
In the sharing three things happen. The first is that the strength of my competitive feelings diminishes, because the pressure created by the suppression is released. I feel I am able to make a more authentic contribution. The second is that the act of sharing increases intimacy between individuals, which in turn increases trust. I see trust as a fundamental and necessary condition for collaboration to occur. The third is that others may experience some identification. In work I have done with different teams I have observed that in sharing feelings that are ostensibly the opposite of what is expected, others feel able to share their own. Deeper connections are made which allow for a more open and creative dialogue to take place.
I worked with two leaders both competing for resources and for ultimate control of the organisation. By sharing their mutual feelings of competition with each other and communicating them to their teams, they were able to bring their teams together to address an opportunity that would otherwise have been missed. One of the first things the teams did was enable each individual to share their own competitive drives and how these impacted on their work. The teams then felt free to build on each other’s ideas and move the agenda forward. I think the key was the explicit expression of feelings that everyone had observed in the language and behaviour of their leaders but had never been admitted in the open. This incongruence created a lack of trust and encouraged a silo mentality.
So one of the reasons why individuals within a team or across an organisation may find it hard to collaborate is that they are trying to suppress their natural individual competitive feelings when they feel they are inappropriate to the situation. I think the dilemma between collaborating and competing reflects the age-old tension of between wanting to belong and wanting to stand out. Both needs sit side by side and they each come to the fore at different times depending on the situation.
When collaborating, therefore, I think it is very important to respect my competitive feelings and those of others. Their expression then also provides the opportunity to find outlets for them where necessary.