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Mixed Feelings About Collaboration? Welcome to the Club

A Personal Perspective: It's not uncommon to both love and hate collaboration.

Key points

  • Many of us want to collaborate. And, we want to be good collaborators.
  • Desperately few of us ever receive any substantial training in how to collaborate well.
  • It's important to talk about our frustrations with collaboration so we can improve the experience of working together.
Steve Johnson/Unsplash
When collaborations crumble, frustrations mount.
Source: Steve Johnson/Unsplash

What three words or phrases best describe your thoughts and feelings about collaboration?

I ask this question at the beginning of my collaboration workshops, on social media to generate interesting discussion, of individuals when they apply to join my online community, and of strangers who ask what I do for a living.

Fun fact: Most people share a mix of positive and negative words and phrases.

Alongside positive descriptors such as “camaraderie,” “essential,” “transformational,” “rewarding,” and “game-changer,” there are a host of negative descriptors, too, that suggests, at times, collaboration absolutely sucks.

Descriptors like: Difficult. Messy. Friction. It doesn't exist. Much easier said than done. Time-consuming. Easy to do in a limited way, hard to do well.

People don’t do what they say they’re going to. Misunderstandings lead to people pulling in different directions. Conflict-averse collaborators undercut the process by ghosting out instead of having honest conversations that could help build alignment. Ego and logos get in the way.

While collaboration is ripe with potential and can be incredibly rewarding, it can also be an incredible burden, ripe with headache and heartache.

Welcome to the Club

If you likewise have mixed feelings about collaboration, welcome to the club.

Many of us want to collaborate. And, we want to be good collaborators.

Perhaps we value the spirit of collaboration. Or it’s something we believe will advance our personal and professional goals. Or maybe it’s something we know our employers expect us to do well.

But then, when we actually try to collaborate, it’s often a messy, complicated, drawn-out struggle. We need to talk about that struggle.

Yet, culturally, there are a whole lot of messages flying around about collaboration as some combination of bee’s knees, sliced bread, the end-all-be-all, and the right solution for every challenge. Many people seem to have absorbed this cultural zeitgeist for collaboration in the absence of learning how to do it well. It’s like trying to put together an IKEA dresser without the instructions.

Putting the H in Collabor(h)ate

Some collaborations can really, really suck.

I want us to talk about that. I want it to be acceptable to say out loud, “Argh, this whole playing well with others thing is a huge pain point.” I want to give permission to everyone who is skeptical of the rah-rah collaboration messages out there to say: Hold up. I see it differently. Let’s take a real look at what’s not working here so we can figure out how to fix it.

I want us to talk about this: Collaboration can be really challenging, especially given how desperately few of us ever receive any substantial training in how to do it well. I don’t think we give ourselves permission to say yeah, this sucks. Or: What the heck is going on?

Let’s give voice to the H in collabor(h)ate. Silencing it means we miss out on critical opportunities to learn what we and our colleagues are struggling with; we thus obscure pathways that could make this whole working together thing way more positive for way more people.

Understanding the interpersonal dynamics at play, and designing our collaborations accordingly, means we can make collaborations more productive, sustainable, enjoyable, and healthy. The first step in this direction is understanding why collaborations are so dang difficult in the first place.