What makes the difference between a collaboration that results in brilliant, new thinking and the ugly opposite: more entrenched, polarized, stuck thinking? One of my readers asked me recently, how do you deal with politics and power plays in collaboration? This is such a great question because it gets at the heart of exactly what makes the difference.
Let’s start by looking at what “politics and power plays” are. Simply put, they are some of the ways people get what they want. They are the way some people work when a clear, open process to get what they want doesn’t exist.
The more vested someone is, the more important it is to them to know how to influence decisions that affect them. And the more extreme their behavior will become in contexts where this is unclear, inaccessible or both. We want to be heard, and if it’s important enough, you and I will go to extreme lengths to be so, even if we look manipulative, rude or downright crazy to everyone else.
Every one of us has experienced areas of life where the way things work is murky, overly complex, and badly (if at all) communicated. Think neighborhoods, schools, municipalities, banking, the office, the tax code, even the produce section at your local grocery store – who is deciding produce selection and what criteria are they using, anyway? Do you take what you can get, or try to influence the process through the suggestion box or a visit to the manager? And if that doesn’t work, do you take your business elsewhere, throw your weight around, or jump up on your soap box?
So, if we all have the capability of extreme tactics to get what we want, what hope is there for collaboration? When we want to use collaboration to get something important done, like develop a plan for sustainable water use, or design and implement a major fundraising event, or develop new office policy around flex time? Won’t these efforts be killed every time by politics, power plays or people just giving up?
The hope comes from understanding these dynamics, what causes them and what to do about them. First, those managing the collaborative process need to remember that people come to the table because they care. They want something. And that’s a good thing. Second, since we want and need vested people in the room, we should anticipate that for them to participate in a productive, effective way (instead of resorting to more extreme behaviors like power plays) they need to understand a few key things:
- the scope of the collaboration – what is being addressed and, just as important, what is not?
- the role of those involved in the collaboration – is it to frame the issue, to develop recommendations on it, to provide expert knowledge, or…?
- the governance process – how will the issue(s) ultimately be decided (what, who, when)?
So, at the beginning, these questions are carefully considered and decided. Let me emphasize: this work happens well in advance of the start of the collaborative effort. These are NOT issues to “wing it” on or to address as you go! Then, communicate the decisions (referred to a “process parameters” or “rules of engagement” or whatever term best fits your situation) as an explicit part of the invitation to participants. Surprisingly, most people are pleased to see that this has been thought through.
Next, re-emphasize the process parameters at the first session, and at all subsequent sessions as needed (e.g., when the collaboration is open and new people come each time, review at each meeting is essential). And all while the collaboration process is underway, it must adhere to the scope, role and governance process as decided. This may seem terribly obvious, but the number of times I have seen people transgress their own process (scope of work, bylaws, charters, job descriptions, etc.) is both stunning and remarkably self-defeating.
People can accept rules and parameters, which are essential to well-functioning group process, but not if they change without warning or reason. And disregarding them wholesale is even worse. Managing the collaborative process in a way that honors agreements is exactly like a personal relationship: people trust people who do what they say they will.
And this trust is fundamental to achieving great things from collaboration. It’s simple: if people are always worrying about how something is getting done (process), they have less energy to focus on what is being done (content). In collaboration, the goal is to get the collaboration participants fully engaged in the content so that great outcomes can result. The more participants distrust or don’t understand the process, the more they will focus on it – with some people resorting to those negative behaviors that cause collaboration to fail. In countless such efforts, I have experienced the most seemingly aggressive and manipulative participants shift to invaluable members of the team simply because they come to trust the process.
By the way, this is not to say that process parameters can’t change – in multi-year collaborations, there is often a need to re-think them: scope may need to expand or contract, roles shift, governance change. When this occurs, giving participants the heads up well before changes are made and the opportunity to give input is the way to maintain credibility.
In summary, politics and power plays, as well as other challenging behaviors, show up in collaborative processes when there is:
- lack of clarity about the scope and intent of the collaboration
- lack of clarity about the roles and other process parameters of the collaboration
- weak or ineffective adherence to process parameters during collaboration
The good news is that, understanding this, you can see unwanted behavior not as a threat or failure, but as a terrific signal that it is time to re-look at and/or re-clarify these. And remember, basic sincerity about all of this goes a long way in repairing any mis-steps.
For a follow-up piece to this one on addressing challenging behavior in collaborative process, see The Gift of the Skeptic.