Collaboration is a Paradox
By Ryan Burke
Collaboration is both paramount to what we do in education, coming into even greater focus as the world changes, and collaboration is on the ever-changing list of educational jargon that sometimes gets thrown around in the school setting without much real meaning.
All of this is true and not true, and this is only the beginning of the many paradoxes that surround the term collaboration.
At Leadership + Design, we see all group work through the paradoxical lens based on the simple truth:
Human beings crave being in a group, included, and we clearly create more creative and adaptive solutions to complex problems when we harness the power of a diverse and dynamic group of people who think differently but come together around a common purpose.
While this is simply true...so is:
Human beings resist working in groups. The thought of group work often produces anxiety, and we avoid it if we can. We know that working in groups means giving up some of what we believe, and while we hopefully have learned how to share and compromise, we don’t always want to. We know that working in groups is the slowest, most painful way to get something done, and there is no guarantee that anything will get done.
We are haunted by two inner voices competing for airtime and both voices rationally make the case for one side or the other ignoring the paradox:
Voice 1 - “I should be collaborating on this project because I won’t get buy-in if I just do what I want”
Voice 2 - “It is just easier for me to get this done on my own and something done is better than nothing done at all”
This simple, yet dynamic paradox is at the heart of how we see collaboration differently than most firms. A book that addresses this directly is The Paradoxes of Group Life by Smith and Berg.
This book goes into much greater detail regarding the different ways that people feel and experience paradox in their group life, and it forms a foundation for how we manage, instead of solve issues in group life.
What is helpful about shifting one’s view of collaboration to a paradoxical lens lies in the shift from solving to managing, and this shift offers one critical reframe which helps leaders, at any level of system, expand their awareness of, and ability to, manage complexity in groups.
The Critical Re-frame
In your mind, put yourself in the group or team you have been assigned to lead or work within. It is that moment when your high hopes are crushed. You had hoped that this time would be different, that this time your group would be “good.” But, you were wrong. You got a bad group again, or you already knew the group was bad, and they confirmed, once again, that this team is doomed, dysfunctional or _______ (insert word that starts with d and denotes a dismal destiny).
Often in these moments we can point in our mind to the person that is to blame. It is rarely us, yet paradoxically, we are the only one we have control over.
The value of viewing group work as a paradox comes in this moment. Instead of the narrative above, a paradoxical lens allows one to experience this moment differently. One acknowledges that this moment in groups is expected, normal, necessary and useful in figuring out how to move forward. It may still be hard or uncomfortable, but it has a purpose and one sees it coming. You have two productive choices with this lens:
Choice One: You can tolerate the messiness of the moment, the struggle with an attitude that embodies the above narrative. You are resilient, patient, you are optimistic and even thankful for the struggle as a key indicator of important insight for the group.
Choice Two: You can intervene and take responsibility for trying to help the group through the struggle.
Neither scenario is guaranteed to “work”, however, either choice is far superior to the negative mental tailspin that not only shuts down ability to contribute, but is contagious, toxic and hopeless once one has decided that the group is dysfunctional or doing it wrong.
We look forward to the rest of the month as we explore collaboration. Once this fundamental shift is made, one can focus on learning about tools and skills for choice number two above. But choice number one, tolerating hard moments in groups with a great attitude, open and grateful for the struggle and embodying hope, curiosity and optimism can be a powerful act of leadership capable of changing the way it feels to work for and with you. As you think about this, try it out and experience these moments in your group life, we would love to hear from you. Tell us how this reframe has impacted your experience.
L+D Staff and Friends
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