When there's work to be done, it's tempting to jump in with both feet and get started right away. But when that work involves collaborating with others, here are few things to consider before taking the leap:
1. Know Yourself: If you prefer working alone, maybe that’s what you should do. Collaboration isn’t as straightforward as working independently. If you find it difficult to be patient, and specifically to invest the time necessary to get on the same page with others, it's not likely that things will go well. Or if it's hard for you share control over the design and implementation of the overall work, it may be best to avoid collaborating in the first place.
2. Know Your Team: You can’t force other people to collaborate well with you. If another person is impossible to work with, then maybe you shouldn't try. Then again, when you find yourself working on the same team, avoidance can be tricky. Either you need to figure out how to remove yourself (quit or transfer to another position), or encourage the other person to move. The first approach is pretty sad, especially when the work itself is interesting to you. The second could be seen as manipulative or unfair. So before you adopt either of those strategies, ask yourself why the other person seems so impossible to you. See if you can identify any aspects of your own working or communication styles that, through dialogue and a few requests or accommodations, might transform your experience of working together.
3. Form Your Agreements: When you decide to collaborate with others (or find that you must), take time to establish your working agreements up front. Here are some questions to ponder and discuss as you work toward defining those basic operating agreements:
Feedback: If we rub each other the wrong way, how can we talk about it without prompting anger or defensiveness? What boundaries do we want to establish around giving and receiving feedback? For example, when and where is it appropriate to give feedback? In what ways is it okay to express anger?
Conflict: If we disagree, how will we handle it? What behaviors will help us recognize early that we’re not seeing eye to eye? What can we do to identify and build upon common ground and aligned interests. Again, what specific behaviors can we agree are unacceptable during moments or periods of conflict?
Decision Making: What’s important to us when making decisions? Who must be present or involved in order for decisions to become binding? How will we know which decision rule to use, e.g., consensus, unanimity, majority vote, one person decides? If we become deadlocked, what are the minimum criteria necessary for us to move forward?
Accountability: What does it mean to make a commitment? How and when should we communicate if it looks as though we might fail to deliver on a commitment? What happens when we do fail? What happens when too many commitments have been broken in the past, and trust has been lost? How can trust be re-established?
For many people, the answers to some of these questions may seem obvious, which means they won't even think to ask them. And that’s a problem. We all come from different families, and often from entirely different cultural backgrounds. Our diversity guarantees that conflict will arise when we forget to challenge our assumptions around how best to communicate and collaborate.
When the stakes are high, and when differences among team members run deep, consider hiring an objective facilitator to help guide the discussion and move the team toward consensus. After all, agreements are meaningless unless everyone on the team supports them.
Summing It Up: There are countless issues that can arise when we jump too quickly into working with others. It's not possible to anticipate every problem, much less to address them all in advance. But we can enter into our collaborative endeavors consciously by knowing ourselves, getting to know others, and investing the time up front to form a few basic operating agreements.
Mark Voorsanger is a consultant, speaker and executive coach who has been leading and managing teams for more than 25 years. He is a member of the training team for the Collaborative Operating System, a powerful framework for teams and organizations that need to collaborate effectively.