Is it possible to collaborate if one person outranks another?
Let’s say that a group of people are collaborating on the design of a new thingymemob. If one of those people is the boss, does that become consultation rather than collaboration. Even if the boss in question is a nice boss, a boss who listens, and respects other people (even makes the occasional collective cup of tea) is it likely that people will defer to her opinion?
Of course, line management isn’t the only form of authority. One person could be viewed as more authoritative because they possess expertise and/or experience that the others don’t or because of their charismatic manner. Less positively, some one could assume authority because they shout the loudest or moan the most. In collaboration, there could be a lot of parallel power relations going on. So how do we manage them?
Agreeing groundrules could be a start. We could acknowledge that people bring with them different perspectives, principles and positions and establish at the outset how decisions are to be made. This could also include some discussion on who the stakeholders are. For example, if some of the collaborators have no share in the outcomes, they may not be equally invested in the process of defining and delivering them.
However, are groundrules enough to make a difference? If the discussions about the thingymebob reach an advanced stage, with the collaborative team divided on whether to add the whojamaflip or not, is the boss going to be tempted to use her casting vote?
Perhaps she will, or perhaps she won’t. It might depend on whether she is thinking short or long term. Yes, it is possible for somebody to assert their authority and ensure that they get the decision that they want. However, if they want that decision to be implemented by those that they have just overruled they might have a nasty surprise.
In the institution that I work some programmes run projects where students compete to have a particular design realised. Those who lose out are then enlisted to help the winners in developing their design. The potential for conflict, both petty and elemental would seem to be enormous. However – I’m assured – it works principally because students recognise that the selection is a fair process and that they have a stake in the outcome (i.e. it does you no credit to sabotage a project). Critically, the process of collaboration is as important as the product, so that participants have an opportunity to reflect and be rewarded (or otherwise) for the manner in which they conducted themselves.
Perhaps that is the key. If we invest the process of collaboration with as much attention as the product then it may not matter if your collaborator is the Queen of Sheba or Jojo from Whoville.
The more I think about collaboration the more I think about conflict.
Previously, when I thought about collaboration I thought of cuddly words like co-operation, sharing and support. It meant people working together for the greater could. Now I think of strife, and I couldn’t be happier about it.
I think that John-Steiner is right. You can’t have meaningful collaboration if everyone always agrees. What would be the point? An extra pair of hands is always useful but the purpose of collaborating with someone is taking advantage of different ways of seeing the world. Perhaps we should start every collaborative venture with a discussion about how we are going to manage the conflict that will inevitably arise.
It sounds a little alarmist, perhaps a little defeatist, but I think it could work. Negotiating at the outset how we are going to solve problems could ironically solve a lot of problems. For example:
- Are we going to assign roles, with different people responsible for different aspects of the project?
- Are decisions made by majority vote or by consensus?
- What are ground rules for discussion (i.e. turn taking, no shouting, no nut shots etc.)?
Taking time to agree a set of parameters for the collaboration might help to harness the competition of ideas that takes place, and ensure that argument outweighs status when plans are formed and enacted.
Perhaps one of the most important things to decide is what the stakes are. If – for example – the stakes are much higher for me than they are for you then one of the potential areas of conflict is the contrasting priority we assign to the task. Most of us have been in the situation where we have been working on a project (whether it be academic or not) where it is clear that one party cares more about the outcome. If that’s you it can lead to understandable – if unhelpful – feelings of self-righteousness and infuriation. If it’s not you, the feelings are more likely to be guilt and resentment. None of these emotions are likely to lead to positive collaboration.
In a nutshell, perhaps our collaborative mantra should be: we are going to disagree. And that’s a good thing.
This month, I’m looking at collaboration with the help of Vera John-Steiner and Holbrook Mahn. In their pithily titled paper ‘Sociocultural Approaches to Learning and Development: A Vygotskian Framework‘, they present a model of collaboration that reveals four patterns of collaborative behaviour:
- distributed: the exchange of information around shared interests
- complementary: the negotiation of objectives with a clear division of labour
- family: the sharing of goals across a fluid partnership
- integrative: longer term and intimate sharing of roles and ideologies
They represent these patterns, and their characteristics, as a circle. ‘Integrative’ sits in the centre, surrounded by successive layers emanating out like ripples on a pond (although they take care to assert that there is no rigidity in these divisions). Their goal in doing so is to ‘examine how the resolutions of tensions inherent in collaborations transforms the character of the collaboration and determine whether it continues.’
I think that this is interesting approach, particularly as it acknowledges that conflict is at the heart of collaboration. This is not something that I’d considered, but makes sense. I don’t mean so say that we should take sharpened axes into the seminar room, but it seems reasonable to me to state the the measure of a collaboration is the success in which differences in opinion can be both managed and exploited. As John-Steiner and Mahn imply it is possible to manage conflict through the use of authority (this is what we’re going to do) or negotiation (let’s agree to disagree). However, if it is to endure and flourish then participants need to develop a unified voice by sharing ideas, values and methods. This is difficult thing to do.
So, this month, I’m going to try and figure out how best to collaborate. Questions to consider include:
- Does authority inhibit collaboration?
- Is long term collaboration good collaboration?
- What is the balance between emotion and logic in collaboration?
I’ve had a month to think about it. For me, there is an excellent case for the use of silence in restoring some calm to a twitchy mind. However, is there a specifically pedagogical argument for its use as a structured part of a curriculum?
In her article Helen Lees argues that it a) is more democratic b) encourages intimacy c) promotes reflection. I’m not sure quite how it is more democratic other than the obvious point that it gives the class temporary respite from those who tend to dominate the discussion. Can it encourage intimacy? Comfort in silence can be a sign of intimacy but is that confusing cause with effect (i.e. a comfortable silence is a symptom of intimacy rather than a cause of it). Does it promote reflection? It can, but as I’ve argued in a previous post that can just as easily be achieved *while* something is talking. So, what does that leave us?
In the end, perhaps I’m scrabbling around for sophisticated answers when the best one has already been said. Perhaps the true value of silence as a pedagogical tool is that saying noting is better than saying something for it’s own sake. By accepting silence we give ourselves the opportunity to consider what we want to say next. As someone whose mouth works considerably quicker than his brain, this is a tremendously valuable lesson to learn.
I guess, sometimes you just need to learn when to stop.