Are you a bad collaborator?

I’m not one for collaboration.

It’s uncomfortable to admit, but I haven’t loved my experiences of working with others in the past and they’ve left a stain.

Mismatched workloads, poor communication, a lack of ownership and personal responsibility… I’ve experienced it myself and seen it in my work in business and academia.

As a leader, it can be challenging to acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers. That we have a better chance of success if, rather than taking control to facilitate a move to action, we work from a space of ‘not knowing’ whilst intentionally seeking the experience, knowledge and wisdom of others.

It’s a well-known premise in business that competitive advantage lies in our people, not our product. In his book The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek talks about this in terms of ‘will’ versus ‘resources’.

As a leader, the will you have available to harness lies with your people. Will is not about skills, knowledge, or experience, as important as these may be. Will is the energy, attitudes, and mindsets your people show up with each day. It’s their motivation, commitment, and morale. It’s intangible, but it’s absolute gold. The will of your people drives their energy, effort, problem solving, creativity, imagination, and teamwork.

Resources, on the other hand, are much easier to see, feel, and measure. They’re the kinds of things you’d see on a performance dashboard or balance sheet – revenues, profit, production quotas, stock price, and so on. As leaders, it can be easy for us to focus on resources, as they are tangible and easily measured. This gives us – or rather our brains – a sense of control and a feeling of safety and security. But it’s a false sense of security, and it make us fragile. The things that influence our capacity to accumulate resources are external and largely outside of our control – economic cycles, political upheaval, major weather events and global pandemics.

However, the factors that influence will lie with us and the way we lead our people. They are internally rather than externally driven. If we so choose, we can access and harness a bottomless pit of will by actively fostering trust and collaboration in our teams.

So what does it take to be a ‘good’ collaborator…?

Rather than a list of attributes, I reckon answering these three questions provides us with the right orientation and helps us create it with our teams too:

  1. What is the most valuable contribution I can make at this time?

It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that collaborations need to divide tasks evenly among the group, but more is not always better. This question invites us to consider the unique strengths, skills and expertise we have to offer and how (or if) they are needed right now.

  1. Are the expectations of myself and others clear, clean and realistic?

In my experience, much of the tension that can emerge with collaborations comes from a lack of clarity over who is doing what and the deliverables associated with it. In my work with senior leaders and teams around improving accountability, I’ve seen the impact that understanding how to differentiate responsibility and accountability and discuss where it lies cleanly has in clearing up confusion and dissolving conflict and disappointment.

  1. How can I be deeply committed and completely unattached in this process?

Working with others means letting go of control. It means accepting that things may not be done exactly as you would do them and still staying committed and connected to the work at hand. That can be hard, but at the end of the day collaboration asks us to work with people, not do the work for them or to them by not inviting their skills, experience and wisdom into the work.

The uncomfortable truth that I’ve come to accept is that whilst collaborating may at times feel like it slows me down, I know that the result is better – for me and the outcomes we want to achieve.

And holding these three questions as my anchor helps me stay oriented towards the good.

Until next time…

P.S. Over the last few months I’ve had the genuine pleasure of collaborating with Dr Michelle McQuaid on our latest book Your Leadership Blueprint…: Fostering Psychosocial Safety at Work. It explains how leaders can meet the requirements of the latest developments in workplace health and safety – and why collaboration is a critical piece of the puzzle.

You can find out more about the book and how we can create good collaboration by coming along to the Leaders Surgery on Thursday 27th April at 9.30 am.

Let us know you’re coming by registering here.

Recent Posts

Free Resources


Let’s Talk!