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The problem with working together/collaboration. Do you have a thriving team?

Which areas affect your team? and what is it really costing you?

Adaption of an article from the team at 'The School of LIFE'

The root cause of a lot of difficulties in collaboration is nothing less than emotional. Emotional issues are not an incidental aspect of modern business; they are not a vague phenomenon that one might chose to worry about only when all other issues have been solved. No ambitious business can afford to ignore the momentous goal of improving levels of emotional maturity.  It’s an agreed part of joining any modern office that we quite quickly get to know the quirks of people around us. Because many of these quirks are weird and distressing, we often feel an urge to chat about them with others, perhaps in the coffee shop around the corner from the office. This activity is sometimes dismissed as mere ‘gossip,’ but something important is going on when we air views on, for example, the manner of the guy in sales or the notorious temper of the IT chief. We are chatting because we are frightened and upset and want to air our puzzlement at how others behave. We gossip in order to release tension – and because collaboration is so hard. Office gossip tends to feel extremely individual (it’s all about Megan or Dave or Ida), but if one takes a step back, all the endless permutations of complaint we have about people tend to boil down to some core flaws that keep recurring in people. There are, in our eyes, ten problematic character traits in people that make office life so hard.                    

Ten Anti-Collaboration Traits - Which ones are your team?

One: Defensiveness is a priority need to reject criticism. It raises the cost of disagreement hugely, for whenever a defensive person meets with anything, however small, which is negative about themselves and their behaviour, their response is both very large and extremely severe. This is because, inside themselves, they take the attack to be entirely personal and therefore catastrophic. There is in their minds no distinction between a criticism of their work – and a criticism of their very being and right to exist. It becomes deeply depressing to have any sort of tricky discussion with them about anything. It’s guaranteed to flare up. One wants to point out that something is a little late; but is there really a point when a drama is going to ensue? Organisations can put up with defensive people for a long time, but the relationship tends to get more and more joyless – and eventually, no one is too sad when a decision is taken to part ways. 

Two: Irrational Rivalry can be very beneficial: for example, when you have two sales teams seeking the best quarterly results; two research groups pursuing different strategies to solve a major problem; or many analysts competing to provide the most accurate and most useful overview of an issue. But there are individuals who bring rivalry into areas that don’t require it – and certainly don’t benefit from it. For example, a busy executive is assigned a smart young assistant to take some of the less complex issues off their desk. But instead of making the best use of this help and streamlining their own efforts, the executive starts to worry that their assistant is doing too well; they think (incorrectly) that if the assistant is a success, their own job will soon disappear. So they start to make life difficult for them. They get reluctant to pass on tasks and they get extremely agitated the day their assistant is praised by the CEO. They would rather some of their work was done badly, or not at all, than that their helper should do it well. It feels as if there is only space for one of them to thrive and they are in competition for the limited affection of a superior. This is the definition of irrational rivalry: rivalry with no sane productive business end. 

Three: People-Pleasing means a manic terror of passing on information, however important, that might upset others. It is deeply problematic, for it confuses being polite with withholding information. It blurs the line between lying and pleasing. Successful nations and businesses are never sentimental around bad news: they are founded on the principle of the free flow of the most awkward bits of information. 

Four: Negativity The negative person knows things are going to go wrong. They’ve been there before – and can’t resist pointing out drawbacks and dangers. In their mind, being negative is the way to be wise: it means seeing through the foolish delusions and naive hopes of others. Collaborating with them is hard: they kill ideas very early. Negativity belongs to a mindset that might rudely be called inner feudalism. 14th-century rural scene of reeve directing serfs, from the Queen Mary Psalter

In some part of their brains, the guys doing the threshing know that big decisions are taken all the time, castles get built, people rise to power and courage make fortunes. But in their own lives, none of these feats seem remotely possible. They have been inculcated with the view that no improvements are likely, everything will stay the same and if you try to improve things you’ll get into trouble and it will all go wrong anyway. Outwardly the age of feudalism is long, long gone. But inwardly, some of its characteristics remain even in a time of democracy, freedom and laptop computers. 

Five: Bluster At first they can seem rather exciting to work with. They like throwing out big ideas, and are great at sketching exciting scenarios about how everything might work out. But there’s a snag. Their optimism is excessive – and compulsive. They refuse to consider the downsides seriously, even when something is inherently rocky. They regard anxiety about possible bad outcomes as a sign of weakness. They won’t take risks seriously. They are very difficult to collaborate with because they tend to be impatient with detail, which they regard as unimportant. They see concern with specifics as ‘fussy’, hardly worth bothering about. It’s as if, at some point, they had been over-exposed to a very unhelpful picture of what it means to focus on details. They suffered at the hands of someone a bit too plodding and unimpressive, someone genuinely pedantic and nit picking. And now lots of things that are actually very important are seen by them as mere ‘fussing…’. They are perhaps in flight from an over-protective, over-cautious mother. Charles Dickens’ character Mr. Micawber (from the novel David Copperfield) is full of bluster and ill-grounded optimism. 

He always believes that ‘something will turn up’ and has a remarkable ability to fail to learn anything from his past troubles. The difficulty is that moment by moment he appears confident and reasonable. He talks well (in general terms) about the opportunities and all the projects he has on the go. It can take some time before one realises that this person’s confidence is not in fact well-grounded – and is in fact highly dangerous to the whole team.

Six: Over-Control The control-freak has a horror of letting other people do things. No matter how pressed for time or overburdened they might be, they are very reluctant to let any decisions or tasks leave their desk. Sharing and delegating causes them real anxiety. Control is often a virtue. It means taking responsibility for getting something right; it’s the conviction that certain tasks are worth a lot of personal effort. But in patterns of over-control, other people are always seen as obstacles to doing things well. They are just a bunch of idiots, somehow in the way of getting to a good result. 

Seven: Secret Manoeuvring Secret manoeuvring is a pattern of behaviour whereby one quickly gives up on the people one is meant to be collaborating with, fails to talk to them about one’s disappointments – and instead works around them with the help of a few select not-always-officially-sanctioned colleagues. A secret manoeuvrer may seem supportive; and may appear to have taken a suggestion quite positively. In the meeting, they didn’t raise any objection. They gave you a big smile. They sent you a message saying they thought your idea was very interesting. What you don’t realise yet is that behind the scenes, they have a very different attitude. This is a person who is determined to get their way. But they don’t want to risk stating their intentions openly. They very much dislike confrontations and show downs. Even acknowledging disagreement can be quite upsetting to them. However, they are not at all passive or willing just to put up with things they don’t like. They just hate conflict a lot and despair of others very fast. They worry that if they have to convince everyone, nothing will get achieved. They are pessimistic about communication. So they go intently to work – only you won’t see what they are up to. They hate the idea of keeping people informed. They set up secret side groups. It’s meant to be a collaboration between 20 equals. But they go out and hire two external consultants who they set up alongside the 20 that are meant to be doing the job. Secret manoeuvrers are constantly quickly losing faith with the people they’re meant to be working with, and briefing against their intended collaborators behind their backs.  It all sounds dark and Machiavellian – but it’s important to realise where the secret manoeuvring is coming from. It’s the outcome of a deeply ambitious personality that has very low faith in others and in their own ability to work through a problem with someone. In their personal life, the secret manoeuvrer may well have a lover and a spouse: they’re disappointed with the partner they married, but they haven’t come around to expressing what they really feel. It seemed better to steer around the conflict and start up a new relationship on the side. They’re doing in business a version of what they’re doing in their marriage. They’re devoting themselves to ‘lovers’ because they can’t tolerate the tensions and ambiguities of sticking with the group they’ve originally pledged themselves to.

 Eight: Unfriendliness There are people at work who don’t do ‘nice’. They quickly let you know that they don’t waste their time on (as they see it) the minor niceties of massaging people’s egoes, giving out the occasional words of encouragement, smiling or asking about how the holidays went. They are markedly abrupt. They tell you straight out they didn’t much like your ideas. They thought your section of the report was poorly presented – and weakly argued. They never seem to sugar-coat bad news. They won’t soften the blow. They are almost impossible to impress. And their demeanour suggests they really don’t think your approval is worth having in the first place. They tend to regard more gentle behaviour as a mere disguise for inefficiency. They bring the mood down. They don’t stoke enthusiasm. They are cynical about rousing speeches. They feel they have to be mean to win.

 Nine: Slyness At the end of the table, looking perhaps rather dapper or elegantly turned out, there’s one member of the team who seems not quite to regard things as serious. They can be very charming and good company (for a while). But they give the impression they are just ‘holidaying’ at the company; or that they are working for ‘fun’ rather than because they really have to. In some way their reasons for being here are not like those of others. Some large part of their life, which they hint at but don’t fully describe, is more important than what is going on in the room. Maybe they are about to inherit a fortune, maybe in their bedroom they designed an app which is about to go global, maybe a relative owns the whole corporation and they’re working incognito to get a feel for the various departments before taking over. They are quietly superior. They don’t seem to care a great deal how things turn out. Their contributions make people laugh, or lighten the mood – but they don’t really seem to grapple with the issues. And somehow they never seem to end up doing the more grinding tasks. They often have to head off to a lunch; their use of the expense account is technically right but somehow wrong in spirit. At an industry reception, you notice them chatting in a very chummy way to a senior person in a rival firm. You’d not be surprised if they were saying some rather mean things about their colleagues. It’s a pain collaborating with them because you never quite feel they are making a full effort. They give the impression the group isn’t good enough for them. They are special, while the rest of us – sadly – are not. Sly superiority can be grounded in injured narcissism. It’s a desperate, and fragile response to a nagging insecurity about just joining in and admitting that this is your gang – for better and for worse. 

Ten: Non-Listening When you’re speaking they nod; they might make an occasional note; they look at you. They go through the externals of listening. But actually, they are not paying attention to what you say. In their head they already feel they know the key things. They are just politely allowing you to ventilate. But your words cannot actually be important.  A variant on non-listening is to speak too much; it’s grounded in the same lack of curiosity about what other people think. The person who speaks too much isn’t merely hogging the conversation. They are in fact demonstrating they they are not a good listener. In their mind, listening is the inferior position, speaking is the sign of status. It’s not surprising that listening isn’t done so well very often: we have some very powerful collective conceptions of the power of speechifying.  The flip side of this is the idea that it is slightly shameful to have to listen. One is back at school, an infant.

                      BETTER COLLABORATION

It’s normal, when we think about the problems at work, to think first and foremost about that highly troublesome category: other people. Their flaws are so obvious, so irritating, so hurtful… It can therefore take a long while – but this is no sign of evil on our part – before we realise that, logically-speaking, the faults cannot merely belong to others. Slowly, a realisation dawns: we must by necessity have flaws of our own when it comes to working with others. That’s when we should start to ask some key questions:

What would it be like to work with me?

How may I be troublesome to work with?

What might people be saying about me when a gossip session happens out of earshot?

These are deeply tricky questions. Our self-love, that coating of protection we need in order to drag ourselves through life, generally resists such unpeeling. And yet, we would be wise to go in for enquiries of this sort, because we’re always likely to be one part of what makes any collaborative activity go well or badly. Furthermore, we have unique access to ourselves. We don’t have to ask anyone permission or worry about issues of seniority. We can start right away – and feed back to ourselves without fear. But to begin the process, we have to relax, which means legitimating the idea that everyone, and that includes us, is a little crazy and damaged. And that’s very much OK. Our madness and eccentricity is a given, and no sign of pathology. Of course we’re hard to work with and quite tricky. We’re human. The issue isn’t whether or not we have problems. It’s just a case of determining which ones we have – and then trying to do something, ever so modest, about improving them.

What flaws do you think you have…?

Take the list of the 10 immaturities and grade yourself against them from 0 to 10. Whenever you go over a five, stop and reflect. Then tell yourself a story about when you were immature in collaborating… – and what happened. Where did the difficulty come from in your character? What were you scared about? How does your immaturity relate to your past? Then ask, is this what I want? If not, what do I need to do, who do I need to be, to move on, to let go of?

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