Ecologies of opposition to collaboration

Many of my favorite life experiences have involved collaboration. I enjoy many fond memories of working together on architectural projects, theater productions, management consulting interventions, convention exhibit displays, video shoots, software development projects and corporate training designs. I naively assumed everyone would favor collaboration over working in isolation. I realized that collaboration was an acquired taste of mine, given decades of getting graded in school for my individual efforts. But I assumed that the rewards of collaboration would become obvious to everyone exposed to the possibility.

Throughout those collaborations I enjoyed personally and facilitated for my clients, I noticed some people were better at the interactive, mutually-dependent processes than others. Some people appeared to be driven by high needs to be right, in control and more powerful than the rest of us. They seemed more easily threatened, disconcerted and put off by those of us collaborating effectively. Often there would be no attempt to transform them into effective collaborators or collaborate with their misgivings. Instead they got labeled as "prima donnas", "ego maniacs", "power trippers" or "control freaks". We didn't collaborate with them on what to label them. They were 'them" and we were "us" who were pointing fingers at "them" as if acting like team players was not an option for us or them. We got to be right rather than effective.

Since then, I learned a lot more psychology, cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics. Over the past year in the U.S., the news has been filled with oppositions to collaboration during the presidential campaign, financial bailouts and debates over health care reform. My view of those situations is now much more systemic, complex and ecological. Here are four anti-patterns I see inter-relating the collaborators and their less collaborative cohorts .

Abandoning stability
The introduction of collaboration can form a vicious cycle in contexts of well established isolated efforts. Collaboration can be a change that is opposed to the status quo. Proponents of change and stability get locked into a power struggle over who gets to be right. There is no way both can be part of the solution or essential to keeping things in balance. Advocates of stability and the status quo experience change as threatening to their comfort zone of familiar routines and reliable predictions. Their need for lots of stability gets heightened by the evidence of others trying to make them wrong, destabilize their familiar situations and frame them as incompetent.

Changing the rules
Collaboration can revise the unwritten rules of the game being played in ways that give advantage to the presumed losers. It's assumed this is a zero sum game that is dividing a fixed pie where the winner takes all. There no possibility of win/win outcomes, a non-zero expansion of possibilities or sharing the victory to keep the game going infinitely. Letting the enemy  win before the game even begins -- defeats the competitive spirit of those opposed to collaboration. The value of playing the game gets dismantled if the usual victors value those who are supposed to get conquered, subdued and humiliated. The need to put down the collaborators and keep them in their place gets heightened whenever they get the upper hand and change the rules of the game in their favor.

Losing touch with reality
Reliance on collaboration can appear as a delusional construct that lacks realism. Collaboration can put the "decidedly" incompetent and inferior slackers in a position to dominate the competent and superior performers. There's no question that someone ends up on top of the others. The realistic appraisal gets turned upside down. The presumed facts about who really knows their stuff and who actually gets results gets upended. There appears to be no advantage to "letting the inmates run the asylum" or "putting the children in charge of the adults". An endless argument about facts, appraisals of performance and realism gets escalated as the reliance on collaboration appears increasingly delusional.

Asking for trouble
The adoption of collaborative approaches may appear to open a can of worms. Efforts are being made to keep a lid on the chaos, impose some order on the confusion and keep crises to a minimum. There are only safeguards against irrational hysterics, passionate troublemakers and high maintenance characters. There are no patterns in use for calming the furious, reassuring the compatriots or restoring the combined resourcefulness. The lid is either on or it flies off. Collaboration apparently does nothing to silence, squelch, dismiss, downplay or steer clear of eruptions. The crazier things get, the more it appears collaboration has to be counteracted to maintain a semblance of order.

In every one of these anti-patterns, the collaborators "get into it" with those opposed to collaboration. The underlying perceptions, fears and cycles do not get addressed. Exploration of the anti-pattern itself gets avoided. Work on the migration from the anti-pattern to an effective, resilient pattern gets deferred. Living with the problem appears preferable to co-creating a solution.

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