Finding that ‘sweet spot’ for collaboration

By Elisabeth Goodman, 3rd April 2019

The five positions of conflict
Illustration from RiverRhee’s training on Assertiveness and on Dealing with Difficult Situations

Exploring ways to find the “sweet spot” in collaborating with others is a particularly salient topic in the current political climate.  Thomas Kilmann’s model is an excellent guide on how to do this, which we illustrate in RiverRhee’s training on Assertiveness, and in our management training on Dealing with Difficult Situations, with a story about two sisters sharing their last orange.

Thomas Kilmann’s model teaches us about the importance of having open conversations, and of deploying our best listening skills to understand what is most important to the other person.  The idea is to find some common ground which may lead to a solution (the “sweet spot”) that might be even better than mere compromise. In the case of the sisters, they discover that they want the orange for different purposes, and so are able to share it in a way that meets both their needs – the zest for one, the juice for the other.

The story about the orange is of course extremely simple compared to some of the issues facing us today, and especially where there are more than two people involved!  However, the principles may still be relevant.

So it was with great interest that I read Lisa B. Kwan’s article in the March-April 2019 issue of Harvard Business Review on “The Collaboration Blind Spot”, pp.67-73.  The author explores what can happen in cross-group initiatives, and how to address the defensive behaviours that might arise.

(By the way, you might recognise, as I did, that both the behaviours and the ways to address them can apply to individuals involved in one-to-one collaborations with each other.)

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Defensive behaviours demonstrated in cross-group collaboration initiatives

Lisa Kwan reminds us that if we are seeing or experiencing defensive behaviour between groups, the chances are that they are feeling threatened in some way.

She lists the kinds of behaviour typically demonstrated as:

  • Overt territorial assertions: “we’re in charge here”, “their opinion does not matter”
  • Overt attacks on others: public criticism of the other group
  • Power plays: calling high-profile meetings and excluding the other group from them
  • Covert blocking behaviours: making the other group’s work so difficult that they can’t play their part in the collaboration
  • Covert manipulation of boundaries: framing the other group’s expertise in such a way as to over-emphasise one’s own group’s strengths, or the other group’s so-called weaknesses

Threats to identity – purpose, roles and responsibilities

Lisa Kwan categorises the threats that lead to this defensive behaviour under three fairly closely related headings, the first of which is identity.

A group may feel that there is a threat to their on-going ‘reason for being’ as a result of the collaboration.  Will their role disappear?

A leader can address this by being very (even publicly) clear about:

  • the purpose of the collaboration
  • the reason why he or she has asked these particular groups to collaborate
  • the very clear differences in the roles that they can each bring to bear to the discussion
  • his or her expectations of what is in or out of scope in terms of the nature of the discussion and the outcome

If appropriate, the leader could also grant the individual groups greater ownership of roles not associated with the collaboration in question.

Threats to legitimacy – value and reputation

This threat is to do with the groups’ and the parent organisation’s perception of the value that they bring.

Lisa Kwan suggests that the answer here lies in publicly re-asserting:

  • why each group was created in the first place
  • the value that they have brought in the past – to the organisation as a whole
  • the value that is anticipated they will bring to the collaboration
  • the critical role that they play or will play

Threats to control – decision-making and autonomy

A collaborative initiative may threaten a group’s sense of control, decision-making or autonomy.

A potential solution involves:

  1. Identifying the broad topics, processes, products, services, equipment etc. and general decisions involved.
  2. Defining which of these each group is responsible for: their “landmark” categories
  3. Defining which of these require shared, uncertain or ambiguous control
  4. Identifying where there might be an overlap between the “landmark” categories, and the shared ones – this is where they might be a “control threat”
  5. Exploring ways to reduce this threat – or acknowledging it and perhaps finding ways to offset it by giving the relevant group greater control over some new area

Conclusion – reminders for leaders and those involved in potential conflict situations

Lisa Kwan’s article represents the results of eight years of research, including six years of doctoral research.  She has observed cross-group collaboration in global companies, and conducted extensive interviews.  Her conclusions certainly resonate with what I have more informally observed and I think provide invaluable insight for leaders, as well as for individuals involved in conflict situations.

Lisa Kwan suggests that leaders should “check for their blind spots” when asking groups to collaborate to pick up and act upon the potential behavioural risks involved.

I believe that her advice could help both leaders and individuals find the “sweet spot” for collaboration!

About the author

Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We support our clients through courses, workshops and personal one-to-one coaching.)  Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  RiverRhee is a member-to-member training provider for One Nucleus. 

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals) and of APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.



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