Lately, I have been invited to support managers at different levels who attempt to embrace a collaborative approach to management within their organizations. Despite their clear intentions and strong commitment, I have seen a pattern arise that slows down and sometimes even subverts their efforts. The good news is that tips exist for addressing the factors that interact to create this tragic consequence.
Our intentions are rarely sufficient by themselves to change long-seated habits. Since hardly any of us were raised with models of collaboration, we have learned to retreat or charge, give up or attempt to impose, direct others or follow their lead. For many managers this shows up as frequent bursts of anger. Even when managers embrace the intention to collaborate, without the existence of role models they are likely to revert to anger when they are not happy with someone’s choices. This occurs even if they are deeply committed to honoring everyone and creating a culture of experimentation where choices are never penalized.
Tip: Transforming patterns of angry behavior takes ongoing effort and commitment. Two key practices are willingness to show up vulnerably in our full unprotected humanity when things aren’t how we like them, and the deep work of embracing uncertainty and letting go of making things be exactly what we want.
After some years of working in various settings, I have come to believe that many people have very, very little faith that anything can change. They go to their workplace day in and day out bracing themselves for what they don’t like in the environment, especially in terms of relationships with bosses. Even when they care deeply about the actual work they do, they still protect themselves on the relational level. Initially, what took me by surprise was seeing how the longing for respect and care don’t disappear, they just go underground. Once I start doing anything with the management, employees have a small surge of hope which unfortunately lacks any resilience. One city government I worked in, for example, I met first with management and then with the workers separately. I received a unanimous request from the workers to train the management first. Management agreed, and the workers were satisfied with this choice. Then, when I came to meet them again a few weeks later, the workers were entirely demoralized, because they expected to see change happen overnight in order to be able to hold on to any sense of hope that change could happen at all. Given that change of this kind takes consistent effort to integrate and make visible, this is a particularly tragic stumbling block in shifting to a culture of collaboration.
Tip: One way to address unrealistic expectations for immediate change is to acknowledge the expectations explicitly. For a manager to make such an acknowledgment is consistent with the willingness to show up as fully human. That willingness can offer reassurance to employees that the work and the manager’s commitment are sincere. Managers can also ask for feedback on their ability to create the shift to collaboration, which sends the message to workers that their voice counts and that their input may be taken seriously.
Managers are not the only ones with deeply ingrained habits. Time and again I see situations where the person in the position of power is seriously committed to transformation while others continue to respond in a disempowered manner. They withhold their opinions even when asked; they say “yes” when they would rather not do something; they don’t ask for support when they need it; or they put up with behavior that distresses them without ever providing feedback. The net result is that the manager is left too much to their own devices for creating change that in any event is high stakes and difficult to integrate.
Tip: If we are truly committed to creating change, one thing we can do is to take on employees’ mistrust and go out of our way to support their empowerment to meet us collaboratively. This goes hand in hand with all the other practices. We are called to invite feedback and express gratitude even when it hurts, so that we can continue to learn and employees have a sense of mattering. We are also called to appreciate people when they say “no” to us so that they can increase their sense of freedom and choice, without which collaboration is meaningless. When organizational norms, often not of our own doing, interfere with more options for collaboration, we can be transparent about what is or isn’t possible, and a focus on facing the reality of the situation collaboratively.
Signs of Hope
The cultural context in which we all operate is not set up for collaboration, leaving us without models to emulate. Most of us grew up in an environment of enforcement and authority, and have likely internalized an either/or perspective that makes it challenging to engage collaboratively when there are differences in perspective or wishes, especially when those are compounded by power relations. Nonetheless, we can move towards greater and greater collaboration through understanding these patterns and embracing the willingness to stay the course for transformation, even in small ways. Change can come from unexpected places, too. As soon as even one employee becomes empowered to tell the truth and work collaboratively with the manager, others can see and learn, and the entire atmosphere can change. Wherever we are within an organization, if we plant seeds of change and water them patiently over time, we can harvest the sweet fruit of collaboration.