A hard choice: to collaborate or to be liked

Collaboration in most cases evokes a good vibe amongst those who are inclined to that mode of creating. But, there’s one little factor that is rarely discussed and I get the feeling it’s an omission by commission, rather than accident. When we enter into a collaborative environment and the process is underway, it becomes very apparent to all involved that collaboration will call for disagreements and participants’ characters can be really tested to the limit. A safe, defensive strategy many run to, is the charm offensive. We end up doing all the nice things one can think of to ensure that we do not lose the ‘likes’ from our collaborating partners.

That’s where things will follow one path without fail; the collaboration output will be mediocre. Maybe this is best expressed in the words of Colin Powell (ex US Secretary of State); “Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity.” Far from advising that an adversarial attitude is the way to go, I do think that frank discussion is not possible without a trust based, respectful and safe environment for all collaborators. Before collaboration can kick in in earnest there is a very lengthy stage of transformation from a known culture to a disruptive and challenging environment. When the initial phase of ‘trying to impress’ your collaborating colleagues dies down, the natural evolution of relationship building can start which inevitably leads to lots of questions and many not so clear answers. This process of being committed to trust building is of the utmost importance as it is one factor that will remain vulnerable to the whims of complexity that collaboration creates.

Experienced collaborators will tell us that good outcomes come with hard work. Hard work is also about the honesty and integrity that partners bring into the mix, and aside from their well-established skills in chosen areas. It’s the integrity of the collaborative process that has to be preserved before real expectations of outcomes is possible. Preserving that integrity is easier said than done, but far from impossible. On the contrary, explicit commitment to integrity is what gradually becomes one of the principal resources that all collaborating parties turn to when the collaboration hits a roadblock. The shared knowledge that all parties are collaborating with the explicit understanding of the importance of a trusting and safe environment can play a decisive role in ensuring that collaborators feel disinclined to be liked at all cost. Instead the focus would remain on the desired results which were the primary reason for setting up the collaborative partnership.

Suggesting that trust and integrity are vital in a workplace, and particularly in situations where people depend on each other, has become somewhat of a cliché. More worrying is that the response to this is even more of a cliché, and the suspiciousness towards trusting people is in fact a major hurdle to productive collaboration. While collaboration offers genuine competitive advantage, that should come with a qualification; the level of advantage is directly dependent on the investment we make in trusting the relationship. Trusting a relationship may not be about having others’ approval. It may even come with people not liking what we say or do, but trust and respect will come out as winners because the outcomes that collaboration enables are a far more mature reward than a mediocre collection of sympathy votes.

My advice to all senior executives who embark on transitioning to a collaboration-rich culture or organisation is to invest in some preparation time and develop clear parameters for staff to perform by, in respect of the degree of trust that should be part of the organisational culture. It is a mistake to believe that the collaboration itself will lead to greater trust when little exists beforehand. A winning collaborative strategy is the one that combines the best aspects of what an organisation has, and then amplifies it to a competitive advantage. Collaborative strategy is not about making people happy, it is about happy people making an organisation perform better.

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