Stretch Collaboration - It's A Choice. But There Is No Point If You're Addicted To Being Right.
Published on September 18, 2017
Adam Kahane's book "Collaborating with the Enemy – How to Work with People You Don't Agree with or Like or Trust" has a title that seems to elicit a "tell me more" response whenever I mention it to people. They have invariably encountered situations where they've needed to work with people they don't see eye to eye with, nor trust, and they're conflicted about how to feel empowered and function effectively within that dynamic. It's clearly a prevalent challenge within the world of work.
Given my focus is on cultivating trust in my clients’ businesses, you can imagine the double-take required when I encountered Adam’s perspective that trust is not a pre-requisite for what he refers to as ‘stretch collaboration’. Stretch collaboration goes beyond the conventional approach of working towards an agreed plan, instead working together when you don’t agree and there is no plan, including with people you perceive as enemies. On the surface, the concept of trust not being a prerequisite seemed to fly in the face of so much of the research on the impact of trust on performance, let alone the mission of my business. What I soon realised, however, is that stretch collaboration is the most potent form of working together and it necessitates all participants to exercise a high degree of Conversational Intelligence®. For brief context, Conversational Intelligence, also known as C-IQ, is a neuro-scientiﬁc framework for building trust - the human platform from which great conversations emerge – including in conflicted relationships.
Whilst Adam’s background was in the corporate world as an expert solving multi-faceted problems, his thinking on stretch collaboration stemmed from experiences far removed from the boardroom in some of the most complex socio-political situations imaginable. He participated in collaborations during South Africa's transition to democracy, and foundational discussions amongst enemies in Columbia, that many years later culminated in relative peace. We’re rarely dealing with such significant issues at work, yet collaboration in complex uncertain situations can feel just as pressured.
Adam's teachings have expanded and enriched my thinking about collaboration and the way I work with my clients. It's helped me work with the skeptics who think that striving to shift cultures from being I-centric to WE-centric - from having power-over to power-with dynamics - is just too idealistic - and soft. For me, Adam's experiences and principles of stretch collaboration ground the principles of Conversational Intelligence in hard realities and reinforces the pragmatic application of the neuroscience that underpins it.
So, this article is for the brave and the skeptical. It's about collaboration beyond idealistic consensus-driven methods to collaboration within complex and ambiguous terrain. And it starts with a principle shared by stretch collaboration and Conversational Intelligence: your effectiveness is nullified if you're hooked on being right.
Addicted to Being Right | Enemyfying
How many times have you worked with people who are inflexible in their view, insisting that their approach is right and any alternative approaches put forward are inadequate or wrong? Most likely, many times. And how many times have you taken this stance yourself? I suspect we’ve all been guilty of being hooked on the ‘rightness’ of our thinking at some stage in our work life.
As Judith E. Glaser, the creator of Conversational Intelligence wrote in her HBR article about how our brains get hooked on being right “When you argue and win, your brain floods with different hormones: adrenaline and dopamine, which makes you feel good, dominant, even invincible. It's a feeling any of us would want to replicate. So the next time we're in a tense situation, we fight again. We get addicted to being right.”
When it comes to effective collaboration this dynamic is an obvious block. It can trigger the primitive fight, flight, freeze or appease response in other people, decreasing the likelihood of them being able to utilise the capacities of their executive brain, let alone co-create something of value.
Adam Kahane describes the strongest form of this addiction as enemyfying: “thinking and acting as if the people we are dealing with are our enemies – people who are the cause of our problems and are hurting us.” The energy or force of this depends on how important what we're working towards is to us, and what is at stake. Enemyfying falsely reassures us that we’re not responsible for the problems with the collaboration – the other(s) are the problem. There's a simplistic or even psychologically childlike quality to enemyfying, akin to the playground dynamics of goodies and baddies that I watch my six-year-old son navigate. But in the terrain of work, the impact can be far from simple.
I have witnessed many of my clients – and friends - fall into the dynamic of enemyfying at some point or other. I too have been guilty of enemyfying. My most salient episode was within a leadership team I was part of, at a time when the business was going through significant change, navigating new ownership, different leadership and a not yet clear strategy in the face of market disruption. Sound familiar?
Both the business' purpose and culture were highly humanistic, which you've no doubt gleaned is a strong orientation of mine. I placed considerable value on the people-centred culture, so when new members joined the leadership team with different interpersonal styles I felt that what was important to me - and for the business - was being threatened. I started to build in my mind a case that this different style was negatively impacting people, and I concluded that this was just not ok. We (read "I") were right, and they were wrong – not about the business strategy, we were mostly aligned there - but about the culture that would enable that strategy.
I'll jump to the end of the story and share that enemyfying this peer was in no way helpful - it's not an empowered state to influence from. I had fallen into the #1 conversational blind spot - assuming everyone thinks like me – and as such was disconnected from my own C-IQ. I was in denial that I needed to collaborate with this person, that they were there to stay regardless of their interpersonal style, nor whether I agreed with, liked or trusted them. We've probably all had experiences that we'd like to relive in a different way, and utilise the professional capacities we normally operate from. This was one of mine.
Thankfully I recalibrated in time to halt escalation of the conflict, and once my C-IQ kicked in we tentatively moved forward, but not before I unsuccessfully attempted to seek allies for my cause. It would have served me well to be cognisant of the foundational principle of stretch collaboration during that time: recognising that collaboration is a choice.
To collaborate or not to collaborate, that is the question
With so much emphasis on collaboration in the business world, it might not feel like we're given much of a choice. But there is always a choice. The options as Adam describes them are:
Collaborate – when you want to change the situation you're in and you think you can only achieve that if you work with others
Force – when you think you need to change the situation and that you (alone or with colleagues) know best what needs to be done and can impose this on others
Adapt – when you think you can't change the situation so you find a way to live with it
Exit – when you think you can't change the situation and you're no longer willing to live with it.
Unfortunately people often unconsciously choose from these options. In their most reactive form, they somewhat mirror the responses of our primitive brain: fight (force), flight (exit), freeze (internal exit) or appease (adapt).
Those who have a more conscious presence, however, are empowered to consider the opportunities and risks associated with each option. And as we live in a world that doesn't fit within neat categories, if you reflect on your own experiences you'll probably realise that you've used a combination of all four at different times, even with respect to the same situation.
If collaboration emerges as the best option, and it's with people you don't agree with or like or trust, then you will need to stretch your mind and your practice beyond what you would typically think or do in conventional collaboration, and certainly beyond what is familiar and comfortable.
Conventional collaboration versus stretch collaboration
One of the most potent stories of stretch collaboration Adam shares in his book is his experience with the project 'Destino Columbia' in 1996. The now president of Columbia and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Juan Manual Santos had, as a young politician, initiated the project that saw all parties representing the violent conflict that had plagued the country since the 1960s, come together to discuss possible scenarios for the country's future. The meetings included military officers, guerrillas (attending via teleconference), paramilitaries, activists, politicians, businesspeople, trade unionists, landowners, peasants, academics, journalists and young people. As you can imagine, trust was certainly not a precursor for this collaboration.
As the story goes, however, even from this precarious base, thin strands of trust did begin to take root. Within my work, we encourage collaborative groups to co-create their 'terms of engagement' to represent how they will work together. It’s a basic practice for cultivating trust. For Destino Columbia, one such term emerged during the initial meeting when it was observed that the fear of retribution some of the participants felt in their first ever conversations with guerrillas – even though they weren't physically in the room - was a microcosm reflecting the macrocosm of the country. To contain this fear, one of the guerrillas promised that they would not kill anyone for anything said in the meetings. Now that's a powerful term of engagement!
In 2016 when Juan Manuel Santos received his Peace Prize, he acknowledged how these foundational discussions from 20 years prior contributed to the country's path to peace. As you can imagine, there was nothing conventional about this collaboration and it's worth reading Adam's book just to read this story (although I recommend you don’t miss the other great stories). His point in sharing it was to highlight the shortcomings of conventional collaboration in our increasingly complex world and to frame his concept of stretch collaboration:
"Conventional collaboration assumes that we can control the focus, the goal, the plan to reach this goal, and what each person must do to implement this plan (like a team following a road map). Stretch collaboration, by contrast, offers a way to move forward without being in control (like multiple teams rafting a river)."
Here are the three dimensions or 'stretches' that evolved from Adam's experiences with such complex and unconventional collaborations, and how I’ve made sense of them through the lens of Conversational Intelligence.
Conflict + Connection | The "I" within the "We"
"For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate." - Margaret Heffernan
The first stretch involves how we relate to the people we're collaborating with, within the polarities of engaging with them versus asserting ourselves.
Even within the frameworks of Conversational Intelligence that aim to shift cultures from being "I-centric" to "We-centric", people are encouraged to express their views rather than risk false consensus or groupthink. By allowing people to express the "I" within the "We" we go beyond their surface level map of reality and instead get to see the terrain.
Both Adam's concepts and C-IQ acknowledge that connection and conflict are not binary options when it comes to collaboration, instead, they're equally valid and valuable aspects of the one spectrum. We need both, and the first stretch is to not only allow both but to learn to read and adapt when the signals are showing that a move towards the opposite pole is required. In Adam's words, it's about working with the generative sides of each pole (engaging and asserting) and recognising the signals when you're moving towards the degenerative sides (manipulating and imposing). And that requires high levels of both E.Q. and C-IQ, expressed in the form of conversational agility.
Experimentation | Co-creation
“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it's not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That's why it's your path.” - Joseph Campbell
The second stretch involves how we advance the work of the team. Synonymous with C-IQ, stretch collaboration is about co-creating the way forward and letting go of the need to know the route.
I witnessed this stretch in action when I was working with an executive team in a highly political industry that was facing closure. There was no certainty and no established strategy they could follow. All they could do was experiment with possible new strategies and be agile as both external events and their own collaborative efforts evolved. It was an ideal scenario for them to practice what we refer to in C-IQ as Level III conversations – conversations based on the dynamics of sharing and discovering to explore unchartered territory. There was plenty of application of the C-IQ essential of asking questions for which you have no answer within these Level III conversations, as there was no right or wrong answer.
And even though there was a fair serving of dislike and distrust amongst the team, they also practiced the C-IQ essential of listening to connect. Adam similarly emphasises the different ways of listening required in stretch collaboration – drawing on Otto Scharmer's "Theory U" - as a way to listen for possibility rather than for certainty. In C-IQ terms, listening to connect rather than judge, accept or reject, is the type of listening that enables the experimentation required for stretch collaboration.
For this executive team, these essential C-IQ practices provided both the lubricant and the glue for the agile approaches and the design thinking methods we deployed along the way. I continue to see the effects of applying these conversational essentials when members of other collaboration teams approach a situation from different perspectives.
I didn't feel great at the conclusion of my work with this team though, as we didn't get the Hollywood movie ending of high trust. But as Adam writes: "success in collaborating doesn't mean that the participants agree with or like or trust one another; maybe they will and maybe they won't. Success means that they are able to get unstuck and take a next step." Thankfully, that is something we did achieve, for many steps.
Stepping in to the Game | Being Open to Influence
"Be the change that you wish to see in the world." - Mahatma Gandhi
The final stretch is to shift our focus from trying to change what others are doing on to what we ourselves are doing. As co-creators we are part of the situation, not apart from the situation.
Adam describes the need here as one of balancing ourselves: not allowing our focus on what others are doing to completely distract us from what we need to be doing, nor placing ourselves at the centre of the situation and overestimating our 'rightness' and value.
In the personal example I shared above I was out of balance. I was both distracted by the behaviour of my peer and self-centred about the value of my humanistic perspective. My emotional intelligence and C-IQ required regulating to get me back in to balance.
Collaborating with people you don't agree with or like or trust is not easy. It will definitely stretch your professional capacities. The self-regulation required for each of Adam's three stretches and to elevate your C-IQ for complex unconventional collaboration takes creativity, courage, and commitment. What I've observed in myself and in my clients is that it also requires compassion, especially self-compassion. If you can have compassion for yourself as you experiment your own way forward - knowing that your primitive brain is always primed to move you into protective behaviours – then you’re less likely to be ruled by this primitive brain, and more likely to be able to learn and adapt, utilising the capacities of your executive brain and heart brain. I've seen the toughest and strongest of clients expand their awareness and grow their influence by developing compassion for themselves. And as you grow in self-compassion, you’re also more likely to develop compassion for others, and in so doing, lessen the hold of any addiction to being right.
With thanks to Adam Kahane for the extraordinary work you do in the world, and the stretch in thinking and practice that you offer to others.
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