My take on collaboration

This article and interview first appeared in the August Issue of Little Black Dress Group's GLOSS Magazine. 

Mend your speech a little, lest it may mar your fortunes.
— King Lear, Shakespeare

In tackling this particular issue, I’ve decided to just post some rambling thoughts as they come to me and will try to avoid taking them through to any natural conclusions. So, hopefully these few humble musings will cause you to pause and possibly even prompt some reflection within the context of your own interactions with others, particularly those with whom we should be able to collaborate but we just aren’t, can’t, don’t or won’t.

I've seen a lot of examples of great collaboration over the years, we all have: Lennon & McCartney, Holmes & Watson, Lois & Clark (a little nod to our Kate Stone there), Richard Burton & Elizabeth Taylor, Gin & Tonic. The list goes on. And the basis of all those successful collaborations is that each ingredient, person or otherwise, must seamlessly and willingly complement the other. 

Now, for every successful collaborative association I've ever witnessed there have been, unfortunately, almost as many absolute failures. And as I have a perverse fascination with the workplace as a petri dish for the fungi of social interaction, I thought I'd give some thought to some of those failures and what seems to be the common theme or themes behind them.

Relying on reflection as the substrate to my sociological observations I realised that I have witnessed numerous botched attempts at collaboration in the workplace all of which have, unsurprisingly, failed dismally. When I consider what the primary cause of those failures has been, the words misunderstanding and mistrust spring to mind, followed in quick succession by themes like suspicion, conspiracy and retribution. All of which ultimately result in, to varying degrees, damage. Sometimes irreparably so.

To be honest, I’ve never understood it. Surely we all go to work to, well, work, earn our pay, go home and get on with our lives. Don’t we? Of course not. The human condition is built on conflict and doubt and deception. We’re just programmed that way. All we need is a spark and a breeze to fan the flames. I’ve seen it happen in the workplace in dozens of different settings and one thing they have all had in common has been a negative culture. A negative culture is like a virus and in my view the breeding ground for fear and misunderstanding. And in any workplace misunderstanding is the deathwatch beetle of collaboration. 

But then, look at all these commonalities again. They read like the ingredients of a Shakespearian tragedy. And it seems to me that in most work environments you end up with the Montagues and the Capulets in some way, shape or form, management and staff - or however you’d prefer to interpret it. And when change is thrust into the mix, the slightest miscalculation in the delivery of a message or adopting a calculated silence to avoid conflict over a certain issue invariably leads to conflict over another. Before you know it, the leaders of each side (or family) are eagerly bolstering their numbers by bestowing favours and promises in return for loyalty. Everyone becomes hell bent on beating the other side and in no time flat have all but forgotten whatever caused the rift in the first place. If we (very) loosely reference the King Lear ‘You’ll get more if you love me more’ premise, we soon realise how fraught this all is. Look at Kevin Spacey’s character, Frank Underwood, in House of Cards. Would you really want to be President that badly?

Factions do not a collaborative environment make, and collaborating within factions is fine to a point but you’re still only splashing around in the same pond. There’s a Stockholm Syndrome aspect to it. You start believing the bullshit you’re being fed by whoever it is who’s pulling your factional strings. You’ll get nowhere and, more than anything, blindly marching along under somebody else’s agenda is not very brave. Set your own course. Anyway, that’s a whole other topic.

To truly collaborate you have to recognise your own strengths and weaknesses, recognise the strengths and weaknesses of those around you, establish some common ground and then strive for success together under the different skills and opinions you each bring to the table. If we look at those duos I mentioned earlier, in every case there existed between them a healthy amount of tension, but the tension was maintained and the collaboration successful due to mutual respect and trust. When those two things are removed, then the tension takes over and everything snaps. Just look at Lennon & McCartney.

So where does all this hyperbole leave us? Nowhere, really. Unless of course we’re all prepared to stare fear and mistrust square in the face and not give in to it.

Chris is a contributing editor of GLOSS Magazine.