Although most leaders recognize the value of effective collaboration, it remains elusive in most organizations, especially when interactions get polarized and emotions heat up.
At these times, leaders may be tempted to impose their authority (if they can) to overcome the impasse and force people to cooperate, but this approach can weaken everybody’s ability to learn how to work through tough interactions in the future. And it often leads to simmering resentment and frustration.
Instead of using authority or coercion to foster better collaboration, leaders can learn how to bring a different presence to these difficult interactions. It can take some practice to do in the heat of tough interactions, but it can absolutely be learned, and it can often completely turn around collaborations that have gotten stuck.
The key is to be able to mentally step back from the situation, to detach from the strong pull of emotions and become a more calm and centered presence in the interaction.
To begin moving away from authoritative leadership and toward collaborative leadership, consider the following best practices.
1. Don’t take this personally.
One of the biggest tendencies you may face when you’re enmeshed in difficult interactions is to take things personally. This is a natural reaction when people start to feel tension, frustration or disappointment, even if they’re not directing it toward you, specifically. They may say or do things that you interpret as attacks or challenges to your thinking, your judgement, even your leadership. It can feel pretty unsettling.
When this happens, all of your instincts may push you to get aggressive and fight back, or to defend yourself and your public identity from possible harm. Or to simply withdraw and go silent, hoping it will all pass. But none of these strategies usually work. More often, they stoke the flames or push things underground where they wait for the next opportunity to surface. It doesn’t solve the real problem or help you or your team members learn how to collaborate better.
There are alternatives to fighting back, getting defensive or withdrawing. The most helpful is to change yourself. To change the kind of leadership presence you bring to these interactions. And to do that, you need a clear understanding about the source of your team members’ behaviors — because they’re never just about you. They can’t be.
Your team members — like all of us — have had a lifetime of experiences, all of which have conditioned them to interpret, feel and react to what happens to them in their own particular ways. And all of this is very personal — to them. But they may have little to do with you.
So, remember: Interpretations and opinions are not about you. You surely recognize the differences between opinions and facts. But linguistically, they are even more different than you might assume, because they each represent a completely different linguistic action.
We all know that facts are expected to be objective and true. Anyone stating a fact should be able to show us what they’re looking at so that we can see it for ourselves and confirm that what they’re saying is accurate.
But opinions are entirely different animals. They are — by definition — subjective. Opinions (and interpretations of facts) reflect the speaker’s preferences, background and standards. They may reflect very little or nothing about the object of their opinion. If you prefer chocolate ice cream over vanilla, it says nothing about the ice cream — it’s all about you and your own preferences.
The same is true with opinions about things in business. Your opinions and interpretations of things are your own — they reveal much more about you than they do about those things. And this is also true of each of your team members.
The trouble starts when we forget these differences between facts and opinions and begin to treat them both the same. This is when we start taking things personally.
Think of the wind blowing through the trees and ruffling your clothes. You might be a little annoyed, but you don’t take the wind personally. You know it’s not about you. It’s about the atmosphere, and there are so many different factors in the atmosphere that give rise to the wind that it would never occur to you to make it about you.
When you remember that your team members’ feelings, opinions and reactions are also their own, it will no longer occur to you to make it about you. There’ll be nothing to argue with, defend against or avoid — you can just stay openly engaged with your colleagues as they do what they do, and let any barbs or jabs go by, like the wind. This can be enormously liberating, both for you and for them.
Even having just one calm, fully present person in the conversation can often make a huge difference, allowing people to settle down and focus their creativity on learning and solving real problems together.
2. Do take this personally.
The previous practice was about bringing your calmer, more centered presence to difficult interactions by not taking things that others do so personally.
This practice is all about taking things very personally. But here, we’re not talking about what your team members say or do, but what you say, do and think.
Just like their actions are about them, your own actions are about you. So, if you really want to up your game as a collaborative leader, you need to be able to recognize what is yours — and yours alone — to take responsibility for and change.
Whatever your team members say or do, you’ll perceive and interpret their behaviors in your own particular way. Your perceptions and interpretations (including opinions) are yours, reflecting your own personal background and experiences, and all this determines how you behave in difficult interactions. This, in turn, affects your team members and their behaviors in those interactions, in a cycle of reactivity that can often spiral downward.
If you want to stop the cycle of reactivity that may define some of your collaborations, it’s up to you to change your own role in that cycle. Hitting that pause button is always a good idea when things get heated, taking the time to not only center yourself but also to examine your own role in the situation.
One final thought about taking things personally: Whatever your team members may do or say — although you may not take it all personally, they may still at times be pointing at something valuable for you to look at learn about yourself. If a team member seems angry or resentful toward you, although you know it’s more about them, you still may want to look at how you might be contributing to that dynamic, even if unintentionally. Reciprocity works both ways.
3. When in doubt, move to inquiry.
When collaborations get stalled or go off the rails entirely, it’s not always clear how to get them back on track. This is especially true when people are feeling pressure to reach agreement or commit to action, now, or when things are polarized and highly emotional.
Some conversations often turn into what I call “tell-fests,” with folks doubling down on telling others their own views, pushing their agendas, trying to get their proposals accepted, even telling their colleagues what they should be thinking, feeling and doing.
Tell-fests are lopsided conversations with a lot more telling than listening, more advocacy than inquiry, more knowing than learning.
Telling has its place, but when folks are always filling the conversational space with their own ideas, there’s no room for anyone else to contribute; there’s no room for questions or for learning, and it impedes the conversational flow.
The way out of these logjams is to move to inquiry, which helps to clear the blockages and get the conversational energy flowing again. Moving to inquiry involves asking more and telling less. It involves fewer periods and more question marks … and a lot more listening.
Although inquiry is where learning happens — which leads to better decisions and stronger alignment — inquiry is often the last thing people think about when they’re struggling with each other.
We move to inquiry by hitting pause on our own agenda (just temporarily) so that we can learn more about what’s going on with our team members. So that we can give them a chance to share what’s on their minds and in their hearts. Which they likely won’t share unless you ask them, and ask them with genuine interest in what they may say.
Moving to inquiry isn’t something we can do just by going through the motions. That just keeps things stuck, because we can all usually sense when someone is truly interested in what we have to say and when they’re not. To practice inquiry, we must be genuinely inquisitive. Without practicing curiosity, people won’t share openly and honestly.
When our own curiosity is genuine, then inquiry becomes effortless. It flows easily, and others pick that up and are encouraged to meet us there. When you’re more curious, you’re also all going to feel more relaxed and open to new ways of thinking, which opens the floodgates to more effective collaboration.
If you take on and really work at these three practices — not taking things personally that aren’t about you, taking personally what is about you and moving to inquiry when you’re stuck in a tell-fest, it will transform your leadership and your collaboration. Equally importantly, you’ll feel better about your own role in your collaborations and will gain confidence in your capacity to bring your highest and best performance to the table, even under pressure.