What do people really mean when they ask for ‘collaboration’?

May 24, 2017
For some time now I’ve been doing a fair bit of work around collaboration – at least that’s generally the starting point.

Yet when we dig deeper into what’s really going on ‘collaboration’ may be what someone says they want, but isn’t really what they’re after.

The harsh reality is they actually want someone else to simply co-operate, or possibly conform to a set of rules, or to just shut up and comply with the request.

It feels a little less dictatorial to ask them to ‘collaborate’.
But that can cause a great deal of confusion.

Confusion about ‘collaboration’ isn’t surprising when we take a look at some different dictionary definitions:

Oxford English Dictionary
  1. the action of working with someone to produce something.”he wrote a book in collaboration with his son”

    synonyms: cooperation, alliance, partnership, participation, combination, concert

  2. traitorous cooperation with an enemy.”he faces charges of collaboration”

    synonyms: fraternizing, fraternization, colluding, cooperating, consorting, sympathizing


Collaborate, verb

  1. To work with another person or group in order to do or achieve something
  2. To give help to an enemy who has invaded your country during war
  1. General: cooperative arrangement in which two or more parties (which may or may not have any previous relationship) work jointly towards a common goal.
  2. Knowledge management (KM): effective method of transferring ‘know how’ among individuals, therefore critical to creating and sustaining a competitive advantage. Collaboration is a key tenet of KM.
  3. Negotiations: conflict resolution strategy that uses both assertiveness and cooperation to seek solutions advantageous to all parties. It succeeds usually where the participants’ goals are compatible, and the interaction among them is important in attaining those goals.
Origin: from Latin ‘com’ + ‘laborare’ = to work together

The person (or people) who says they’re seeking ‘collaboration’ when they’re really not may have picked it up as a buzzword about how to work well with multiple stakeholders, different suppliers (who may like to be called ‘partners’ – that’s another post…) or heard about it in the context of start-ups, or different ways of working. It sounds friendlier than asking someone to ‘comply’ with a request or ‘conform’ with how things get done round here.

Personally, I’ve no problem with being asked to ‘comply’ if that’s what is required for a situation. Where it gets messy is when people use ‘collaborate’ and it’s not what they really mean. These examples may help you identify whether you and those you work with have been genuinely collaborating, or using the word as a Trojan horse for a different kind of behaviour.

Collaboration is:
  • A combination of both co-operating and assertiveness on all sides
  • Honesty and openness about what’s important to each party; their interests and concerns
  • Conversation that allows fair hearing on both sides
  • Time-consuming, as both parties’ interests need to be identified, discussed – and met
  • Challenging – those used to wielding authority or choosing acquiescence may find it tough
  • Creative – truly collaborative solutions tend to be bigger and better than a straightforward joint effort
Collaboration isn’t:
  • Compromising, or settling to split the difference
  • Complying for the sake of peace and quiet, for example with a lengthy and detailed scope of work, terms and conditions
  • Conceding that one party has more power/expertise/ authority than the other
  • Conflict – when everyone throws their toys about
  • Conforming to one party’s ways of working
  • Commanding others to do things your way – or the highway

Source: Dawn Sillet

Dawn SillettDawn Sillett has been designing and delivering training workshops and executive coaching for over 15 years.


Author of: The Feedback Book

THE FEEDBACK BOOKMaintaining performance today is no longer simply about having an annual appraisal and telling employees “you must try harder”. Research demonstrates that regular discussions about performance and providing feedback to the people you manage is a more effective way to motivate them and keep them on track.Distilled into this single, handy-sized volume are 50 tips, advice and techniques to help any manager become quickly skilled at regularly discussing performance, setting goals and objectives and providing the necessary feedback to ensure individuals and teams thrive in the company. Structured into five key parts, each of the 50 concise chapters also contains a practical exercise to help the reader understand and implement the concepts and ideas of this book.

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