What stops collaboration?

Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

I stumbled on this article by Steven Coats: The conundrum of collaboration. It echoes a question I’ve run into a lot lately: since collaboration makes so much sense how come it doesn’t seem to happen more often in organisations? This piece offers a good summary of some of the standard traps.

One of the ideas that lodged in my brain at the recent Applied Improv conference was this: collaboration is a low status game. The offer to collaborate generally involves an opening up a suggestion of vulnerability. Sticking to rugged individualism often feels safer. Of course, good collaborators get more done, but as Coats points out, they risk not grabbing as much kudos as those who play politics:

Many organizations are not built around a model that fosters collaboration. The people they recruit and hire are selected based on previous accomplishments, as well as attributes such as self-drive, competitive spirit, and ambition to get ahead. There may not be much discussion about or investigation into the candidate’s collaboration history and capabilities.

Part of the problem is (and forgive the jargon) the fundamental attribution error: it seems our brains are wired to make us emphasise character over context and thus invest too much faith in heroic characters over heroic behaviours (hence the ascendancy of those with the high status CVs). Coats puts it like this:

Put yourself in the following situation. You are one of two candidates being considered for a promotion into a higher position. You have always looked for opportunities to collaborate and have been part of many successful achievements. The other contender’s profile doesn’t focus much on collaboration. Instead it highlights a string of great accomplishments that this person has been directly responsible for throughout his or her career. From what you know about how promotions have been determined in your organization, would you feel like you are in the strongest position?

He goes on to look at some solutions and I particularly liked this thought, a good caveat on thinking the answer lies in just setting a different bonus scheme:

The other route you can take to bring out more collaboration is guided by a different principle than the one previously mentioned. Rather than focusing solely on that which is rewarded, this leadership principle reminds us that what is rewarding gets done. That means that people will engage in behavior that provides intrinsic benefits, such as joy, fulfillment or personal gratification. People will collaborate simply because they enjoy it.

I think this is on the right lines and I’ll take the risk of being called a foolish optimist. It’s too easy to get lured into working up another clever incentive scheme and miss the point: many incentives are counter-productive and obsure the power of intrinsic motivation. A point that a few rounds of good improv can make much more entertaingly than my blog post.

By the way, I have a feeling one of the reasons blogging is taking off is that it helps create a critical mass of people who are willing to drop the status mask and reveal themselves more… the rewards being more intrinsic than extrinsic for some of us…

[Hat tip to Chris Corrigan who prompted me to set up a deli.cio.us tag on dialogue, which is this article appeared on my radar screen]

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