Collaboration is voluntary

Perhaps you know the old joke:

How many social workers does it take to change a lightbulb? One, but only if the lightbulb wants to change.

People often ask me how I make people collaborate. I can’t, of course. And neither can you or anyone else. People collaborate when they want to, when they feel positive towards another person and imagine that person feels positive towards them. You could call this trust.

If you take a strict definition of “collaborate” you could say that galley slaves collaborate to move the boat forwards. That is not what I am talking about. I am talking about doing a little more than what is necessary to get fed or to avoid being beaten. I think of collaboration as offering something useful – help or information, perhaps – to another person before they ask for it, and before they have agreed to reciprocate. It is an example of a gift economy.

This kind of collaboration happens in the gaps between structures and processes. Structures and processes can not make it happen. You can require people to collaborate, and even measure their performance at collaboration but it won’t make them offer more then they must to comply with your system. In fact, attempts to compel people to collaborate are likely to achieve the opposite effect. In any event, collaboration is most useful when people work together to respond to things that haven’t happened before which of course is impossible to systemise in advance.

Even positional authority can not make people collaborate. Power can certainly be used to impinge on collaboration, but between staff and managers, building trust is mutually voluntary.

So who can do something about collaboration? I still vote myself and my collaboration wrangler colleagues down on this. I am only in the organisation for the duration of my engagement. The people in the organisation are there the whole time and everything they do or say affects the culture. People collaborate when there is a culture of collaboration and that culture is created by the way people act.

If you want to foster collaboration, just collaborate with others. Act in the way you would like others to act towards you. It is difficult and risky but I really don’t know a better way.

Of course, my colleagues and I can help. Processes like team development workshops and facilitated dialogues to build working relationships can initiate a positive cycle of trust-building. Experienced facilitation creates moments where people take new risks with each other, and a culture where others respond positively. In these small steps, people build trust. When they bring that new trust into their daily interactions, they reinforce the culture of collaboration in their organisation.

One thought on “Collaboration is voluntary

  1. Walter suggested a great example of how collaboration is voluntary, and can occur in the gaps between formal and mandatory aspects of a relationship.

    You were speeding and the cop is giving you a ticket. You both know that the issuing of the ticket is going to happen. It is not negotiable. While it is happening, you and the cop both have the freedom to be courteous with each other, or to be indignant or officious in the case of the cop.

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