Collaboration – there was a time this word was relatively new in Corporate India. That was when the masculine form of leadership was prevalent. Authority, power, decisiveness, clarity (masculine traits and all of which are required) came into force……and the feminine aspects of leadership of nurturing, collaboration, patience, staying with ambiguity – were in the shadow. As there is rise in the consciousness of the feminine in society, corporates and their chieftains started adopting the feminine – atleast in words.
Often, we hear Leaders prescribing – “collaborate with your colleagues, go and ask them what they think, you will get better buy-in……….” And when the managers do so – they get diverse opinions from the peers, some of which they don’t agree, and often they say so. Leaders’ rebuttal to this is ‘Don’t get defensive….be open to feedback’. The Manager and sometimes even the system is playing a cat and mouse game with their tasks – trying to collaborate, not knowing how to deal with ‘undesirable’ input, generating anxiety and finally making a façade of collaboration while just going ahead and doing their own thing.
Collaboration is much deeper than mere co-operation. The difference between these words is the deeper trust, resulting in true camaraderie and committed decisions. So when I found myself a leader who was put into such a situation, I would do exactly the same……until after few years, much of self-work, few good books and many grey hairs later – got series of workable insights on Collaboration.
Collaboration is born out of deep need: Every task however critical need not be done collaboratively. For some tasks a decisive single voice is best or at best co-operation will work.
Collaboration is required when organizations or leaders undertake a change in way of doing things that impacts a group (often large!). For the leader to begin on the journey of collaboration he or she needs to realise deep within that the task will be extremely difficult or impossible to execute without all stakeholders whole-hearted support. Best is when the leader has had several failed attempts at such tasks earlier………there is no better teacher than failure!
Collaboration thrives on a ‘blank slate’: Many managers and leaders go into ‘collaboration intent meetings’ with a neatly created presentation (know the end in the beginning?) or atleast a slide deck of analytics (data so that we can discuss and take informed decisions). That is the quickest way to kill collaboration. I recently started a meeting with just four numbers, problem outline and my intent of the participants – no slides, just flipchart scribbles – left almost unattended in a corner. We had a 2-hour meeting, where not once did we look at our watches. So much for requirement of data and evidence – are these defence mechanisms or a simpler way of saying ‘I don’t believe you’ and the leader goes into elaborate often couched defense – transforming collaboration into dissent. So how about beginning as equals – even at the cost of being seen as ‘unprepared and unleaderlike’?
Absence of structure aids collaboration: Many meetings where collaboration is sought, have a detailed agenda or atleast a design. We are so used to the crutches of structure – it almost blocks wisdom and intuition. Lack of structure is also a great equalizer – the one presenting the problem is equally unsure of the solution and how to go about finding one as much as the one suggesting solutions. The presenter of the problem might have the complete background information, participants perhaps lesser – but together all of them struggle and stay with the problem – bringing their whole selves (not just a cognitive self). In the era of ‘digital’ and ‘analytics’ – we miss that these are aids and not means of decision making.
Leadership stance determines Collaboration: And now perhaps this is the toughest part to get aligned to. We are familiar with the ancient concepts of Brahman and atman. Atman (or soul) is a part of Brahman (the universal – God consciousness). Atman is what we know as Self (with a capital S) – the pure principle within each one of us. The Self in its essence is clear, confident, compassionate, curious, calm, creative, courageous and connected. Have you been in a state when you have felt this way – all of it? Perhaps what we call being in the ‘zone’ as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly in Flow. That is when we are operating from Self. However often Self gets driven by Parts. Parts as elucidated by Richard Schwartz in his seminal work Internal Family Systems – are elements of our psyche or unconscious. Parts could be…….passion, envy, autonomy, love, hatred or any other ‘feelings’ or ‘needs’ that drive us. Parts often blends with the Self and drive or even contaminate the Self.
All Parts are good and they have an intent to protect the Self – however in doing so they might bring negative outcome – eg the Envy Part’s intent might be for self to achieve, compete and get ahead but does not always ending up doing so. Leader needs to honor and acknowledge the intent of the Part and gently ‘unblend the Part from the Self’ compassionately. And then, operate from Self. This is a life long work and easier said than done – but who said Leadership is easy? Leadership is as much internal work as external influence.
So how does this stance of ‘operating from self’ enable or impact collaboration? This stance is infectious – magical as though it seems – operating from Self encourages others to centre into their Self and then a pure Self to Self, connect emerges. Posturing, which we are all familiar with in meetings – pauses and thus trust builds. The group gets into the ‘zone’ the tipping point of collaboration. It is indeed a beautiful process.
But next time you spot Collaboration, deconstruct it and hope you will resonate with some of the above insights. You will know that the Organisation is learning to integrate the masculine and feminine selves!! Be a wondrous witness!
Suresh Muthrotil @sureshmuthrotil
Views presented here are of the Author.