Collaborate: Play Your A-Game

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Collaboration is hard-wired into our nature. That doesn't make it easy, though. We want creativity but as soon as differences arise, there’s tension and possible dissonance. We want to bring our A-game to working together and achieving outstanding results, but plenty of times, the default self takes over and we cope for “good enough,” "staying under the radar" or to “get it over with.”

Three essential building blocks for a positive collaboration culture are: Appreciation, Agreements and Accountability. Together they build trust and allow for creative synergy.
AAA-spelled

Collaboration is hard-wired into our nature. That doesn't make it easy, though. We want creativity but as soon as differences arise, there’s tension and possible dissonance. We want to bring our A-game to working together and achieving outstanding results, but plenty of times, the default self takes over and we cope for “good enough,” "staying under the radar" or to “get it over with.”

How can we encourage creative tension and not be derailed by it? What can make collaboration more enjoyable and productive? A-A-A.

Three essential building blocks for a positive collaboration culture are: Appreciation, Agreements and Accountability. A-A-A is at the top of my list because they are mutually reinforcing. Together they build trust and allow for creative synergy.

Appreciation
There’s a saying that “what you appreciate, appreciates.” It grows in value and impact. So, appreciation is not simply the gesture of acknowledging what you like. It is directing your attention to what needs to appreciate in collaboration, namely the commitment to play at your best.

When people are task-focused and under pressure, sincere expression of appreciation can quickly fall away. That can seem trivial, but consider the importance of social threat and reward. According to brain science, it’s the organizing principle of the human brain to avoid social threat and increase social reward. When sincere, appreciation sustains an atmosphere of social reward. It helps people orient with a more resilient attitude of openness, possibility and emotional alignment, especially under adverse circumstances.

Quick true story: Two colleagues are working together. They basically like each other but have very different working styles and communication needs. After several failed attempts to resolve a disagreement, they reach an impasse. The first one to “come to” steps back to get perspective and try again. Still steamed and righteous, she decides to focus on something about her colleague that she likes. Something small, seemingly irrelevant (or even laughable) and tangible. (For example, the sound of his laugh when he’s truly amused.) She asks herself, “What do I value about that?” When she really feels the sense of appreciation, she asks herself, “Ok, what else do I appreciate about this person?” And so it goes until she can appreciate something about his point of view and enter the conversation again with curiosity grounded in appreciation. Their communication dynamic shifts; they work through the impasse.

Agreements
How conscious and deliberate are you about having clear agreements? Generally, people working together set a structure of some explicit agreements and then “wing it” until there’s a breakdown. How often have you been bitten from assuming that someone had the same “common sense” or assumptions or needs about something that you do?

I consistently encounter teams trying to be productive without an agreement for how to address and resolve differences constructively. Sometimes they’re working hell-bent to accomplish different – and possibly mutually exclusive – goals, without realizing it. The fabric of their agreements is full of holes because the stuff they haven’t agreed about yet is the stuff they can’t even talk about…yet. In fact, the tacit agreement will be to conform to what seems to be the norm and just keep busy. In a rush to produce results, agreements about standards, feedback, dealing with resistance and getting alignment might be given only a nod in passing.

Rather than be legalistic and rules-bound, what makes collaboration fluid is the capacity to keep the conversation about agreements candid, constructive and current. Living agreements provide a structure for creative discourse, coordinated action and course correction. Since we’re making it up as we go…”What is our agreement?”

Accountability
When does accountability slip? Perhaps when we think it won’t matter. A client recently said, “Each instance seemed too pretty to mention, but together all those instances just added up.” It’s a trust thing. A fine blend of accountability and humanity is essential to collaborative excellence.

Why do we avoid accountability? Could it be that “being held accountable” too often is the same as being the one blamed or the “fall guy?” On the other hand, why do we want accountability? From a positive perspective, we value the ability to measure progress. We also value boundaries: this is mine to take care of, and that is yours to take care of. Because we create action with language, it matters how we use words like “yes” and “no.” What can I/we count on you for? Few things undermine collaboration as much as accountability slippage that is not corrected. It’s like a leak in a fish aquarium.

Breakdowns in accountability tend to register like breakdowns or betrayals of trust. The accumulation of many small, seemingly insignificant instances of accountability breakdowns can be more damaging that one big one. The big one you can name and deal with directly. The collection of little ones is tougher to name and address.

Rather than being a way to assign blame, accountability, for a culture of collaboration, is a practice for creating resilience. You win some, you lose some, but you account for your role and what is yours to take care of. This strengthens coordinated action and trust.

Appreciation, Agreements, and Accountability are a mutually reinforcing trio. They’re simple to remember and easy to avoid. Avoidance functions like a leak in the container, in the tires you ride on together. Mastery in practice can make all the difference for the long distance and relationships you’ll come back to again and again. Play your A-game.

“Where innovation, problem solving, and creativity are the marks of a growing business, a strong culture is the foundation beneath them.” from The Athena Doctrine

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