Why managers who want to create collaborative workplaces fail

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September 22nd, 2016

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Hard skills will get you the job but it’s the soft skills that will get you promoted.  In an era of knowledge work, delayered organisations and teams the ability to get people to collaborate effectively may but the most important soft skill for leaders at all levels.  After 20 years of studying leaders, teams and organisations that have succeeded and failed at instilling collaboration I’ve developed a way of understanding why so many initially successful attempts so often fail.  It’s not a motivation problem – almost every leader and professional I’ve met wants to work collaboratively, at least at first.  It’s not that bosses are control freaks, or employees are lazy or that personalities clash – sometimes that’s true but mostly those are just convenient stories for explaining failures.  I think it’s mainly because of some basic ways in which our minds work, and ways in which we’ve been taught to treat each other well, that ends up making it hard for us to work productively together over the long run.

In my view collaborative organisation is best understood as a set of partnerships between people within and between levels of the hierarchy. Partnership is a relationship in which all parties feel responsible for the success of whatever project or process they are engaged in.  Isn’t that what leaders really want – followers who feel personally responsible for the success of the work they are doing together?  Any new partnership , whether it’s a new business partnership, a newly minted MBA in her first job, or a new marriage, begins with the feeling that “this is going to be great”.  Motivation to contribute, to bring the best of oneself to the partnership is high.  But so often that wanes over time until the partnership falls apart.  We all have explanations for why that happened in any specific instance, but that doesn’t explain the overwhelming predictability of that pattern.  I think I have an explanation for that pattern, and a solution.  But the solution requires a complete re-think about what “people skills” really are and the ways we’ve learned to be polite, diplomatic, keep our real thoughts to ourselves, and smooth things over.

Here’s the problem; for any partnership to continue to function people have to learn from their experience together.  Whatever plans are initially made, whatever agreements about goals and roles and procedures a partnership starts off with, reality will intrude and adaption will be required.  When people think about learning from their collective experience they think it involves talking about what happened in the past to identify what to do the same and differently in the future. It’s a reasonable image but it doesn’t work for a couple of reasons.

Reason #1.  Each of us has a different experience.  Experience is the stream of observations, thoughts, feelings and wants that we have, moment to moment.  In any moment every person engaged in a common activity is having a different experience. In fact, the difference in experience can be so vast that in any one event different people can be simultaneously excited, another amused, another anxious and another preoccupied with something else.  Ask five different people what happened in a meeting and you will get five different reports.  This phenomena, that we are all having a personally unique and different experience, is “common sense” for most people.  But here is the question – who is having the right experience?  In a collaborative relationship the answer is “everyone” but that seems to fly in the face of our common assumptions about teams and organising and learning from our collective experience.  Don’t we need to agree on what happened to learn from it?  Don’t we need to have a common experience to be a team?  The answer turns out to be no – in fact partnerships are strengthened when we let each other have our own, unique experience with trying to change it.  But because most of us don’t understand this, or have skills to work with it, conversations where we try to learn from our collective experience start out as subtle or not so subtle contests over whose experience is the right experience.  In a work system we usually make the boss’s experience the right experience and in that moment those who had a different experience no longer feel as responsible for the success of the project or process.  One of the easiest things in the world is to make the boss responsible.  Disallowing the variety of experiences in any group to be heard and treated as valid is, I believe, the number one way in which well intentioned managers destroy collaborative work systems

Reason #2. We make up stories about other people’s experiences.  We are sense-making beings and we are compelled to make sense of the actions of other people who are important to us – like those we are in partnership with.  When our boss or other partners do something that we find puzzling in an irritating or incompetent way we almost never ask them to help us understand and make sense of what they are doing.  Instead we privately mull it over or talk to our friends, mates or spouse to try and figure out why they are acting the way they are.  We discuss it until we have a story that makes sense and because others agree it becomes “the truth”.  We then forget that we made up these stories and treat them as the truth about the other person.  New acts of sense-making have to fit with past acts of sense-making in order for things to “make sense” – which means we are now oriented to seeing the person in ways that fit with our stories.  A cycle begins that leads each person to being increasingly disconnected from the reality of their partners.

Reason #3. The stories we make up tend to be worse than the reality.  When we try to understand the thinking and feelings and motivations behind the actions of others we find irritating or incompetent, the stories we make up tend to be worse than the reality.  In organisations, in any information vacuum, people’s worst fantasies soon fill in.  Brain imaging research and evolutionary psychology provide an explanation for this:  those early humans who imagined any rustling in the bushes to mean danger were more likely to survive.  We have inherited the brain chemistry of the most cautious and paranoid ancestors.  In my research I have found that somewhere around 80% of conflicts at work are based on inaccurate stories people have made up about each other and the actions they have taken toward each other based on those stories.

Sustaining real partnership requires a set of skills for checking out your stories with people you want to be in partnership with, for being honest with yourself and others about what your experience is, for being curious about and respectful of other people’s experience, and for paying attention to and amplifying the best in your partners.  I have broken those processes down into a set of skills in my book, Clear Leadership and my research shows that these skills can be learned by just about any manager that wants to create collaborative work places.  The key things are a willingness to accept that each of us creates his own experience, that everyone is having a different experience,  that no one is responsible for your experience and that partnership requires continuously checking out your stories and periodically clearing out the mush.  It’s not about being polite or diplomatic or nice.  It is about believing that anyone’s experience is as valid as anyone else’s and understanding what learning from collective experience looks like when you hold that assumption.

gervase bushe 150x150by Gervase R. Bushe Ph.D.