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Collaboration: It’s not what you think it is

4 min read


“I’m going to begin to collaborate more with the stakeholders outside of my organization — clients, cross-functional partners and others.”

I asked the leader who made this statement what “collaboration” meant to him and his organization.

“I see it as a way to get more buy-in into the mission of our organization and to learn a bit more about them in the bargain,” he said.

This isn’t really collaboration, a term that has become a buzzword in business and politics. True collaboration is not about what you can get from others.

A continuum of interaction that I learned many years ago helped me to understand what collaboration is. It can help you to understand what you really want to do in the situations you deal with and therefore direct your attention, intention and behavior when you choose to collaborate.

Three words that begin with “C” broadly describe the types of interactions and relationships you may have with others. On a continuum, they look like this:

Competition ◊ Cooperation ◊ Collaboration

They can be defined in this way:

Competition: In competition, both parties are attempting to win something. In the parlance of Stephen Covey, this is a win-lose situation; one party will get what they want and the other loses out. There are times when it makes sense to compete — organizations set out to “win” in the marketplace. You might also observe competition internally in an organization when two or more people are vying to win a promotion or when individuals with opposing views are competing for their idea to be adopted. Realistically, I think there are many times when competition occurs in organizations where it shouldn’t. Think carefully about whether you are using competition as a healthy, conscious choice in your way of leading before you adopt it as a general strategy.

Cooperation: Many organizations have a lot of cooperating going on, which is mistakenly labeled as “collaboration.” Cooperation often means that people agree to something but in the bargain may have to “give in” or “give up” something that is important to them. They may not fully buy in as they continue to cling to their own vested interests. At some point, dissent appears and can interfere with a project, team or organization. Cooperation can increase dissonance in a strategy, project or team, and it can eventually slow or stop the work you’re doing. Nonetheless, it is often an expedient strategy when the stakes are lower or time is of the essence.

Collaboration: Collaboration is a step above cooperation, and it’s rarer than hen’s teeth. When people collaborate, they give up their own vested interests for the greater good (often the greater good is fostered by a “compelling vision” of the future). They’re driven to work through their differences to achieve a goal while trying to understand other’s viewpoints, being open and genuinely willing to change their minds. The stakes may be high, but such people are able to collaboratively bust through barriers to reach the end goal.

If you look hard enough, you may see “moments” of true collaboration in your organization, but it generally doesn’t happen as often as it should. It takes time, effort and ongoing attention by a leader to make collaboration work. True collaboration is a powerful way of making great things happen. Listening for understanding, co-creating the way forward with all interested parties, and a willingness to sometimes let go of deeply held beliefs can make collaboration part of the culture. Not to mention that collaborative work can be great fun and seem almost magical for those involved.

You will stand out if you can make collaboration part of your personal leadership style while being intentional about how and when you create the conditions that will foster it. Are you striving for competition, cooperation or collaboration? When does it make sense to strive for which of these?

Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and a recovering corporate executive who has spent the past 12 years as president of Aspire Collaborative Services, an executive-coaching firm that manages Fortune 500 corporate-coaching initiatives and coaches leaders to prepare them for bigger and better things.

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