The Cost of Doing Things For Your Collaborators

If collaboration is about doing things with others, and command and control is doing things to others, what would you call doing things for others?

In my work helping leaders and teams collaborate, this question has emerged as a very important one, with real consequences for the practice. Collaborators know that they can’t do things to people and that working together means just that – doing things with. But what I see clients struggle with is the desire to help others, to do things for them.

That urge to summarise the discussion or to put together and circulate the agenda or to source the experts or find the next venue or to show them how to make decisions together or to stop them arguing or…. you name it. It’s a powerful inclination, but it comes with a risk.

Every parent knows that to rescue your child from any struggle is to limit their opportunity to learn and grow the skills they need. The learning comes from working it out, not from having Mum and Dad do it on your behalf, unless the learning is about how to be helpless.

It’s much the same with collaborative groups. The more they are rescued from their struggles the more they risk being denied the very opportunity they need to learn what this collaboration thing is all about and how to do it together. Every time we make a decision on their behalf or take an action to help them along, we may be undermining the very thing we seek to grow; the collective capability to solve problems together.

Watching clients struggle with this I have learned the power of stepping back. For when we step back we create the space for others to step forward. In stepping forward the group assumes control and the accountability and ownership control brings. They build their confidence and capability to do this work together. They may even decide they don’t need you anymore.

If you want your collaborators to learn to depend on you and to sit back and let you do it, just keep rescuing them. But if you want your collaborators to build their muscles and their mindset, let them work it out. Doing things for others feels right, but letting them do it can be much more empowering.


Struggling to Collaborate

One day a man was walking in the deep forest and he came upon a twig in the path. When he picked it up he saw that there was a cocoon hanging from it.

 He took it home, put the cocoon into a glass jar and placed it on the kitchen shelf. He watched it carefully for some time and one day saw the cocoon move ever so slightly. He was very anxious to see the unknown butterfly, so he watched it  for several hours as it struggled inside its cocoon. Eventually he made a slit in the side of the cocoon and a beautiful, brilliant blue wing popped out. Then the butterfly emerged and crawled along the edge of the table slowly flapping its wings.

 After several hours, it was still crawling around so he realised that something wasn't right.

The next door neighbour was a biology teacher so went and told his story.

 "Ah" said the teacher, "I know what the problem is. You see, it's in the process of struggling to get out of the cocoon that the butterfly gains the strength to fly."

 

I was reminded of this story recently when reflecting on some recent client work in Queensland – in particular as a group workshopped a collaborative approach in tackling a complex issue.

A couple of the senior staff expressed concern about the impact on their team members - they seemed very keen to protect their staff from some of the confronting revelations that the group were exploring together.

I had seen similar patterns play out in a number of interactions - a desire as a leader to:

  • keep their people safe,
  • to help them through the difficult patch,
  • to smooth out the speed humps,
  • to control the situation,
  • to reduce the tension,
  • to minimise the conflict,
  • to manage the dynamics,

While no doubt well intentioned, the risk is that in shielding staff from uncomfortable situations, we may block key insights and unknowingly prevent the uncomfortable practice that leads to new thinking and skills.

Like the butterfly, people need to struggle a bit to exercise their new “muscles” needed to tackle the uncertain and emergent environments.