When I tell new teams that “collaboration is more about you than about the people you’re collaborating with,” I always get questions like: “If collaboration is all about working with other people, shouldn’t we be more focused on them than on ourselves?” Or, “Isn’t it selfish to focus on ourselves when we should really be trying to understand them?”
First of all, YES, collaboration is all about working with others, and YES, we do need to focus on them in order to collaborate well. But too often, our focus on our colleagues is obscured by our own perceptual biases and habitual thinking. We might think we’re listening openly to them, but we’re really listening to the stories in our own minds. And what’s in our minds can be quite different from what’s happening out there.
An example: Barbara, an accomplished VP with a successful tech company, told me of a conversation she’d just had with a colleague (call him “Bill”) that “Once again hit a wall. He’s always like this,” she continued, “uninterested in anybody’s ideas but his own, and too selfish to be part of the team. I really don’t know what to do about him.”
She was frustrated—and convinced that Bill was the sole reason.
I invited Barbara to mentally step back and think about how her own stories about Bill might be contributing to the situation.
“Do you believe,” I quietly asked her, “that Bill lives his life just to torpedo collaborations that are important to his own work and career? That he truly cares only about his own ideas?”
Barbara’s mouth tightened, and she looked down for a moment, then she began to laugh. “I hate to admit it, but I’ve been convinced that I’ve been so open and collaborative with Bill and that he was the only obstacle to our collaboration. Maybe I’ve been as much of an obstacle as he’s been.”
After a pause, she continued, “Bill may have some irritating habits, but my habitual judgments about him probably don’t help much. I’d likely feel defensive and closed too if someone were relating to me the way I’ve related to him—constantly trying to change or fix him. This is kind of embarrassing!”
Although Barbara had thought she’d been seeing Bill clearly and collaborating effectively with him, she now realized she’d been stuck in her own stories about what a selfish jerk he was, And all her strategies to change, fix or work around him only seemed to strengthen his “frustrating” behavior.
Think about it: With someone constantly trying to fix, control or work around you (with all the judgments about you that this reflects), would you be eager to collaborate openly with them? I wouldn’t.
“We are always at the center of the action” is the 3rd principle of Full Contact Performance. We are—each of us—always full participants, actively shaping our interactions and relationships, whether we know it or not. This principle reminds us to pull out the mirror and take a closer look whenever we hit that wall in our conversations.