Collaboration as Mutual Responsibility

Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility,
and most people are frightened of responsibility.

Sigmund Freud

I think that Freud was wrong, but not totally wrong. I don’t think people are frightened of responsibility. Instead, I think that they’ve been conditioned to believe that someone else should and will be responsible. But, if we want every person to act responsibly – for results, for choices, for the risks they see in others’ decisions and actions – then we must change how we think and talk about responsibility.

When I ask people to describe collaboration, the most frequent definition I hear is working together on some shared goal or task. The reported advantages include opportunities to participate and influence, the chance to leverage others’ views and skills, the chance to learn, and even to have fun. The reported disadvantages are that it wastes time, permits people to avoid accountability, only works if there is no conflict, and produces less than the best solution. And, the most common concern I hear is that SOMEONE must be “in charge” – to break the ties, resolve the escalations, to be the “adult” in the room.

Unfortunately, these views fail to touch the heart of collaboration as we see it. True collaboration is more than simply working together. True collaboration is the conscious acceptance of mutual responsibility for organization success. Mutual responsibility means that no one person is “in charge” and everyone must contribute. It means no single person has the “best or right” answer, so you must build broad commitment to action. It means that each person is expected to have a viewpoint, to surface conflicts and concerns, but also insure that their views are relevant and compelling for others. And, most especially, it means having the conversations that most people avoid, and performing them with skill and grace.

When we train collaborative leadership skills, we describe collaboration as a style of working – a style that is the exact opposite of authority and control. The simplest way to understand this idea is to imagine two people who commit to solve the same problem but who use completely opposite methods. Each person would develop and implement some solution, but their solutions might differ along with the chances for a successful implementation. The most common stylistic differences concern who gets to participate and how, what information is considered relevant and useful, whether conflicts get surfaced and how they get resolved, and how decisions get made.

True collaboration is grounded in some critical assumptions described below.
Choice is possible in every situation – You cannot influence every decision that affects you, but every situation present choices – to engage or avoid, to commit or oppose, what to do and how to do it.

People pursue their interests, as they understand them – Interests are the situational needs, boundaries, wants, and concerns that guide choices. Interests can be as narrow as the person or as broad as the enterprise. Some people may not understand their interests, and some might suppress or hide them, but no one chooses against the interests they understand.

People are interdependent – Few if any meaningful goals can be achieved without some reliance on others. However, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to involve other people without considering their views and interests. Some people fear this interdependence and try to avoid it, but this illusion of self-reliance only works until others’ interest push them to engage.

No one person has the “best” or “right” answer – Some people struggle with this assumption, often in the belief that there is some “expert” who can be identified and consulted. And, sometimes people look to an authority so they can avoid expressing their own views. The issue here is that no single person can speak for the entire enterprise or address all compelling interests.

True collaboration is characterized by some critical methods described below.
Accept responsibility, without the “illusion of control” – For me, collaboration is about accepting responsibility for results, without any illusion about control. I cannot make others commit or perform, but I can clarify expectations, ask for commitments, confront and diagnose off-track performance, and discuss the unintended consequences of avoiding or opting out.

Think together, not alone – As my partner brilliantly observed, being smart is over-rated. Most of the people I meet are smart, but thinking alone often leads people to build and defend positions, instead of jointly solving problems and building commitment to action.

See conflicts as the product of different viewpoints – Conflict isn’t about who’s right or wrong, and especially not about who won or lost. Conflicts are the natural result of “smart” people who have different interests and goals and knowledge. True commitment to action typically only comes through effective conflict resolution.

Manage commitment to action – If collaboration is about mutual responsibility, then everyone must play a part in managing the actions that follow commitment. Commitment is crucial, but it’s the “what and how” that produce the results. If either is “off-track” then someone must confront that fact and have a direct, descriptive, and non-judgmental conversation to get performance back on track – no matter who made the commitment.