Collaboration, like empathy, is something we hear about more and more as a general abstract good, and yet are given so little by way of the how. What happens as a result is that we try to collaborate without knowing how, or we don’t even try because we are too consumed with fear, overwhelm, or outright judgment.
Collaboration is the purest antidote to either/or thinking because it rests on the faith that, in addition to a solution that works for all involved being possible, it is also potentially better. The biggest obstacle to collaboration is whatever commitment we continue to maintain to seeing our own needs as separate or even opposed to what someone else wants, even if we philosophically believe in collaboration. This is part of why I am so often suspicious when parents talk about “cooperation” as a need – it’s too easy for that to mean “getting my child to do what I want.”
When collaboration is challenging, often enough the form that this residual commitment takes shows up as speaking in the name of fairness. Two stories will hopefully illustrate this profound challenge.
The Supplier who Didn’t Provide
A manager in a company somewhere in Europe, let’s call her Agnes, paid a supplier to prepare a detailed proposal for a complex project. It took him much longer than he had estimated, and, when the proposal arrived, it didn’t have anywhere near as much information as Agnes needed. When confronted, all the supplier said was that he was really sorry, and wasn’t going to be available for another month. Meanwhile, the project was on schedule to start, decisions were waiting for this proposal, and Agnes was beside herself with frustration.
In our habitual ways of thinking, this supplier is at fault, and the “fair” solution is to coerce him, one way or another, to provide the necessary information. Before talking with me, Agnes had tried this path. Her emails to the provider remained unanswered. What could she do instead, she wondered?