Friday, November 28, 2014

Job #1 for Collaborative Leaders & Managers

In the first post of this series, I listed the top five reasons companies fail at collaboration. Number one on the list is that coworkers rarely develop and agree upon a sufficiently explicit definition of collaboration. For anyone interested in leading, fixing that problem is job #1.
In this post, I offer a definition that can serve as an example. If you like it, you’re welcome to adopt it as your own.
For my highly caffeinated readers: If you're curious to understand the reasons why defining collaboration is so critical for organizations, read on. But if you feel as though you already understand those reasons well enough, you might want to skip to the next section.

What’s The Problem, Anyway?

Failing to agree upon what it means to collaborate leads to cripplingly low levels of trust among coworkers (especially up and down the chain of command) and, ultimately, to worker disengagement. How does that happen?
When we tout collaboration as a company value, the core of our meaning is left implicit. We're not simply encouraging people to work together, as the derivation suggests. We want them to work well together. That one word makes all the difference, and should signal for us a huge caution sign in flashing neon letters.
In practice, there's nothing obvious about what it takes to work well together. What it means to different people is largely subjective and highly contextual. Consider, for example, how you might work with a teenager vs. a colleague vs. a Nobel Prize winning expert. Chances are those scenarios would differ significantly.
By leaving things implicit, we almost guarantee that workers will fail to live up to each other's needs and expectations. And that's a really big deal. After all, thetrust we feel toward coworkers is based in large part upon how well they live up to our expectations.
As we lose trust in peers or those “under us”, it’s not unusual to get frustrated and annoyed. But when we lose trust in our “superiors”, we disengage. Not surprisingly, the Gallup Organization continues to report alarmingly high levels of disengagement among American workers.

A Working Definition - The Secret Sauce

In our work with leaders and teams, my colleagues and I offer an explicit definition for almost every key term we use. We do this not because our definitions are absolutely “correct”, but because they enable us to communicate our meaning more effectively. As we often say at the start of any engagement, If we're not speaking a common language, we're not collaborating. In that spirit, here’s the definition you've been waiting for:
Collaboration works when all stakeholders have ownership of and alignmentaround what we're doing and how we're doing it
It is said that there’s a universe to be found in every grain of sand. For the Collaborative Operating System, this definition is that grain of sand, our unifying theory, our North Star.
In order to understand this definition fully, you’ll need a few more terms defined:
  • Ownership = the extent to which we feel or believe that something is ours
  • Alignment = the extent to which we see and understand things in the same way
  • Stakeholders = everyone who is affected by what we're doing or how we're doing it, and anyone else whose expertise we may need
Now you're nearly ready to put these definitions to the test. There's just one important caveat to keep in mind: Based upon these definitions, we can always strive to improve collaboration, but perfection is unattainable. Perhaps it's obvious, but here are the reasons and their implications:
  1. We cannot create perfect alignment between people. We can only seek to build sufficient levels of alignment. Similarly,
  2. We cannot own something exclusively and simultaneously share ownership with others. Thus, we can only seek to build sufficient levels of ownership. And finally,
  3. It's often not possible or practical to involve all the stakeholders directly, but we can remain mindful of the likely impacts of choosing to exclude certain stakeholders.
With that, you now have everything you need to “try on” this definition and to begin assessing collaboration in your own workplace.

Your Mission (should you decide to accept it...)

Here’s how to experiment with the definition. Think of any current situation where collaboration is not working as well as you'd like. It could be in the board room, among the executive leadership team, on a project team, or within any group of people who are collectively striving to produce a common outcome. Ask yourself, to what extent are we collaborating according to the definition above? More specifically, ask, to what extent are we:
  • Involving all the stakeholders?
  • Making the content of our work (the what) explicit?
  • Making the processes that we employ (the how) explicit?
  • Building alignment around what we're doing and how we're doing it?
  • Building and sharing ownership in what we're doing and how we're doing it?
By asking these questions, you are beginning to engage in the practice of collaborative leadership. And your answers will likely point you in the direction of where to focus your attention. Of course, what you do with your answers is just as important. But we'll leave that for another day.
Next time, we'll zero in on the fundamental principles of collaboration and collaborative leadership: Ownership & Alignment. Until then...
Mark Voorsanger is a consultant, speaker and executive coach who has been leading and managing teams for more than 25 years. He is a member of the training team for the Collaborative Operating System, a powerful framework for teams and organizations that need to collaborate effectively.
Take the COS work environment survey to assess your company.

The Foundations of Collaborative Leadership

In my previous posts, I listed some of the most common reasons companies fail to promote (and sometimes unwittingly sabotage) effective collaboration among workers.
In this post, we continue to explore what it takes to lead collaboratively.

The Goal

At its core, collaborative leadership is based upon the principles and practices that foster healthy adult relationships. That begs the question, what are healthy adult relationships? Here are the basic tenets, and for many of us, the pitfalls. In healthyadult relationships:
  • We don’t assume that we know what’s best for others
  • We don’t make demands of others; we make requests*
  • We avoid the use of rewards and threats to motivate others**
  • We feel safe to express our needs and desires openly***
  • We are free to end any relationship that no longer serves us****
Of course, most of us do not operate consistently according to these principles at work. In some settings, we might even regard this list as utopian, even counter-productive. Why is that? There are those who would say it’s because “some people simply refuse to grow up.” Although that may be true, there’s a deeper reason for the prevalence of dysfunction among working adults – a reason that ultimately offers the seeds of hope and empowerment for leaders.
(Reader: Seriously? Did he just say “empowerment for leaders”? This list takes all my power away! The guy must be on something!)

The Trap

We all share in common one early form of leadership (and followership) training – that is, the training we received as children growing up. Although parenting styles vary considerably, chances are that your parents did not follow the above guidelines with you as a child. And if you’re a parent, nor do you with your children. To do so would be to treat our kids as adults. (Of course, good parents adapt their approach to parenting as their children mature.)
Unfortunately, in the absence of effective training and support, the most natural parallel we have to leadership and management is parenting. And that’s precisely the trap that keeps us (leaders and followers alike) locked into our existing leadership paradigm.
Let’s take a closer look at the problem. As healthy parents, and before our children mature:
  • We lean upon our wisdom and experience to make decisions on behalf of our children
  • We make demands that sanction against anti-social or unsafe behavior
  • We offer rewards as a means to encourage pro-social and safe behavior; We describe consequences and impose punishments, which often appear to our children’s developing minds as threatening
  • We refrain from sharing our adult needs and desires openly, especially when those needs and desires cannot or should not be satisfied by our children
  • We do not end relationships with our children (although they do evolve)
These are normal and expected behaviors between parents and young children. Yet, referring back to our previous list, they are the very behaviors that reinforce unhealthy dynamics when practiced among working adults.
None of this is about what’s right or wrong. It’s simply about stimulus and response. When leaders and managers behave like parents, workers and teams reflexively behave like children. And when workers and teams behave like children, leaders and managers are encouraged, and often feel justified, in behaving like parents. These are not consciously chosen dynamics. When operating in these ways, we are simply running the unexamined scripts of our earliest training.

The Path Forward

Leaders and followers are equally engaged in the dance of dysfunction when it occurs. Hence, both are capable of disrupting the pattern. But it generally falls upon leaders – those who possess greater power and authority, real or imagined – to initiate and sustain positive change.
Our job in developing ourselves as collaborative leaders begins with raising our awareness around these common dynamics. As we develop awareness, unconscious reactions become conscious responses. We learn to consider, and ultimately to embrace, alternative and more effective approaches to leadership.
What are those alternative approaches? Stay tuned…
(Reader: Aw man… you’re just going to leave us hanging?)
(*) It is, however, appropriate to declare and defend our physical and emotional boundaries.
(**) Rewards: they are best established institutionally, not inter-personally;
Threats: we can’t control what others will find threatening, but we can be empathetic.
(***) Having expressed our needs or desires, we are not entitled to getting them met by others without first establishing agreements.
(****) We often don’t see ourselves as free to end work relationships, given the costs we would bear.
Mark Voorsanger is a consultant, speaker and executive coach who has been leading and managing teams for more than 25 years. He is a member of the training team for the Collaborative Operating System, a powerful framework for teams and organizations that need to collaborate effectively.
Take the COS work environment survey to assess your company.