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Collaborating with the enemy

At a time of increasing polarization, how can we work with people we may not like, trust, or agree with?

Credit: DianneHope14/ CC0 Public Domain.

The central challenge of collaboration is crystallized in the tension between its two dictionary definitions: first, “to work jointly with,” and second, “to cooperate traitorously with the enemy.” The word therefore evokes both a story of generous and inclusive progress such as energetic and creative teamwork (‘We must all collaborate!’), and a story of degenerative and amoral villainy, as in France during World War II (‘Death to collaborators!’).

The challenge of collaboration is that in order to make our way forward, we must work with others, including people we don’t agree with or like or trust; while in order to avoid treachery, we must not work with them. How can we deal with this tension?

This challenge is becoming more and more acute. People today are generally more free and individualistic, and so more diverse, with more voice and less deference. Their identities and affiliations are more fluid. Enabled by new technologies, established political, organizational, social, and familial hierarchies are breaking down. Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity are growing.

Increasingly often therefore, we can’t get things done unilaterally, or only by working with our colleagues and friends. More and more we need to work with others, including our opponents and enemies, but because of our growing differences this is more difficult to accomplish. Collaboration seems both imperative and impossible—but it is neither.

Collaboration is not imperative because it is only one option among four. When we are faced with a situation that is not as we want it to be, we can try forcing it to be the way we want; we can try adapting to it as it is; we can try exiting the situation; or we can try collaborating with others to change it. Although the risks of forcing, adapting and exiting are well-known, in many contexts collaborating also seems too daunting, and so we default to one of these other three options—especially forcing.

But it turns out that collaborating, even with people we don’t agree with or like or trust, isn’t impossible either. It only seems impossible because our conventional understanding of collaboration is based on an assumption that is almost always incorrect: that collaboration requires us to focus on the good and the harmony of the team; to agree on the problem and the solution and the plan to implement the solution; and to get people–other people–to change what they’re doing in order to implement that plan.

This conventional understanding assumes, in essence, one superior whole, one optimal plan, and one paramount leader. It sees collaboration as something that can and must be controlled. But this assumption is usually incorrect, and in complex, conflictual, multi-stakeholder contexts, it is always incorrect. In these contexts, conventional collaboration does not and cannot work.

I have spent the past 25 years helping teams of diverse leaders all over the world to work together on issues that all of them thought were important, but that none of them could address on their own. I grasped the central challenge of collaboration in November 2015 when I was leading the first workshop of a group of 33 such leaders in Latin America.

The participants came from every part of society: politicians, human rights activists, army generals, business owners, religious leaders, trade unionists, intellectuals and journalists. They had deep ideological differences, and many of them were political, professional or personal rivals. They had come together to search for solutions to their country’s most critical problem: the devastating nexus of insecurity, illegality, and inequity. I thought the project was important and was determined to do a good job.

Mostly these leaders did not agree with or like or trust each other. In the country and in the group, suspicion and defensiveness were sky-high. To solve their most important problems, they needed to work together, but they weren’t sure they could. I thought the workshop was going well. The participants were talking about their very different experiences and perspectives, all together and in small groups, and at meals and on walks and trips outside the hotel to visit local people and projects. They were cautiously starting to get to know one another and to hope that together they could make a difference.

Then, on the final morning, the project organizing team (eleven locals and my colleagues and me) got into an argument about some things that were not going so well: methodological confusions, logistical glitches and communications breakdowns. Some of the organizers thought I was doing a bad job, and the next day they wrote a critical note that they circulated among themselves.

One of the team members forwarded the note to me. I felt offended and upset that the organizers were challenging my expertise and professionalism behind my back. I was frightened that the accomplishment and income I was expecting from the project were at risk. I thought I needed to defend myself, so I sent off first one, then a second, and then a third email explaining why, in my expert view, what I had done in the workshop had been correct. I knew that I had made some mistakes but was worried that if I admitted these now, I would be opening myself up to greater danger. I was certain that overall I was right and they were wrong: that they were the villains and I was the victimized hero.

As the week went on and I had phone conversations with the different organizers, my attitude hardened. I thought the people who were blaming me for the problems we were having were unconscionably betraying our team effort and me. I fought back and blamed them. I became increasingly suspicious, mistrustful, assertive and rigid. I also wanted to keep myself safe, so I became increasingly cautious and canny. I decided that I didn’t agree with or like or trust these people and didn’t want to engage with them on this matter or to work with them anymore. What I really wanted was for them to go away and for the whole unpleasantness to disappear.

This short, ordinary conflict enabled me to grasp the core of the challenge of collaboration. In order to make progress on this project, which was important to me, I needed to work with others. These others included people I did not agree with or like or trust. I slipped into thinking of them as my enemies. This polarization within our team put the work we were doing at risk. Moreover, in this small interaction within our team, we reproduced a central dynamic in the larger national system that the project had been established to counter: mistrust, fragmentation and breakdown.

What is the key lesson here? Conventional collaboration attempts to deal with breakdown by doubling down on command and control, but this only accentuates the problem. The alternative is what I call “stretch collaboration.” This approach involves embracing not only connection but also conflict; experimenting our way forward; and stepping into the game, willing to change oneself. It means embracing plural wholes, plural possibilities, and plural co-creators.

Stretch collaboration is simple but it is not easy. It doesn’t solve our problems—it just enables us to get unstuck and get moving and find a way forward. It does not guarantee success—it just makes it more likely. Stretch collaboration makes collaborating less daunting and therefore reduces our reliance on force. At a time of metastasizing social and political fragmentation and polarization, we need to learn to employ this unconventional way of working together at every opportunity.

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