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Collaboration

Are you kind enough to truly collaborate?

  • 04 July 2014
  • Posted by Marcella Bremer

How well do you collaborate? Are you a team player? People have a natural tendency to work together and collaborate. Cooperation is the basic driver of human civilization, explains Dirk Messner in Leadership & Change Magazine. We all have a drive to belong to a group or team or tribe and feel acknowledged and respected and safe – even in individualistic cultures. In general, we tend to go to great lengths to adjust to our group culture. We copy the others, as I know very well from my organizational culture work. We also coach others to behave according to group norms and if they don’t adapt, we’ll correct them in a number of different ways.

We can give them feedback, preferably one-on-one. That way the other person may feel safe enough to stay open to hear our advice. Private feedback is a respectful way to help people improve their performance. It has a good intention: keeping the other from losing face, keeping them open and helping them adjust to our group or performance norms.

But good intentions aren’t always the same as outcomes, as we know (isn’t the road to hell paved with good intentions? – as we say in Dutch). However, they are an essential ingredient in collaboration and culture. Even though I delivered my feedback one-on-one, cautiously and kindly, the other person may still feel hurt – depending on a number of subtle things between us and the other person’s state of development. But at least, I delivered my feedback kindly – which is the basis for collaboration and development.

Collaboration criteria: Intentions

But if good intentions are lacking in the first place, we can’t expect nice behaviors in collaboration at all. What happens if kindness is lacking?

We copy, coach and correct others all the time – and often this doesn’t happen through constructive one-on-one feedback with kindness. We may humiliate or ridicule others in public, in the group. We gossip or complain behind their backs. We might even become rude and bully them in public, intimidating them with harsh language and judgments. One of the worst social punishments is not even being shouted at in front of the group – but being expelled and shut out. Not being acknowledged anymore, but ignored. No longer belonging to that group – that hurts, even if the group’s culture was hostile and hurtful.

Being shut out was life threatening, way back in the evolution. But today, it still hurts. As do the other behaviors that people claim to be intended to “coach and correct others”. To help them improve performance and collaboration. Whatever the intentions of people blaming, complaining, gossiping, ridiculing, bullying, bickering, intimidating, cursing, calling names, judging – they lack kindness and therefore don’t pass my criteria of “good intentions”. I value good intentions, or kindness, above all in collaboration, and in any human interaction.

Add Kindness to Collaboration

When people claim to give feedback to others, but do it publicly in a harsh way – I question those intentions. They’re not giving feedback – and they are not at all helping the subject improve performance – by humiliating them in public. They are degrading others, maybe even making them feel small and humiliated – which will hinder the subject to improve his or her performance. Feeling humiliated is not a state of mind that enables learning or peak performance! Nor does it help people open up to collaboration.

Either the public-harsh-feedback-giver did mean well but is completely unaware of human behavior, or they don’t have good intentions toward the subject – and just need to feel better, superior, feared, respected, noticed or acknowledged themselves…. They have good intentions for themselves – they want to get things their way, they are impatient, or they need to console their own fears.

When I see this happen with experienced leaders or consultants, I suspect the latter. They need to put someone down – in order to feel better themselves. They know no other strategy to have their way and influence results.

Phew... That means we have to develop ourselves: become aware of what still hurts and hinders us – and deal with that hurt so we feel good about ourselves regardless of our circumstances. Only then can we be calm and kind to others and collaborate constructively. Otherwise we can’t lead, we can’t guide change, we can’t truly work together. Otherwise we can’t give feedback. We can’t coach and correct people – without hurting them and thus our teams.

Don’t get me wrong, by the way: It is necessary to give feedback, to coach and correct. Doing it in a kind way, is by no means soft. It allows you to be firm and clear while you achieve more with kindness because you cherish the relationship and the other person – keeping them open, safe, in a learning state, and willing to give new behaviors or improvements a try.

So: are you kind enough to truly collaborate? Did you do that homework? I am still working on this: I’ve moved from clumsy, emotional feedback and getting myself hurt to more kindness and firmness at the same time. We can hone our kindness every day. And it’s not just me who values good intentions and kindness – research shows that kind organizational cultures perform better. Management by fear has never worked – and in our service economies that require many human interactions, it works even less than before.

Ask – Don’t Tell

Edgar Schein tells us in Leadership & Change magazine that we must learn to ask better questions in order to collaborate in our increasingly complex, interdependent and culturally diverse world. We can no longer assume that we know better, that we know everything – that we can give unsolicited advice and feedback to our team members.

So, instead of giving constructive one-on-one feedback: apply Humble Inquiry. Ask the other what they think: How did it go? Were there things to improve..? Ask – don’t assume. Ask – don’t judge right away. Ask – don’t tell! That is the challenge, says Schein. Western, egalitarian and individualistic cultures appreciate high achievers. The awareness of interdependency is often missing: that you need the others on the team! You need to collaborate, which means: you need to be kind, you need good intentions, you need to be humble and ASK.

Enjoy Leadership & Change Magazine issue 9, with a wide variety of articles on collaboration: New ways of collaborating and organizing with Holacracy, storytelling in leadership, leading and working in Asia, addressing sticky issues when working with a team (and being provocative in change), using forgiveness to become a better leader, key issues of cooperation and last but not least: Humble Inquiry by Edgar Schein.

Marcella Bremer

Out of the box

Sufi saying:
Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates:
At the first gate, ask yourself: Is it true?
At the second gate, ask yourself: Is it necessary?
At the third gate, ask yourself: Is it kind?

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