Collaboration Doesn’t Work Without Conflict


29 October 2014


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Collaboration is one way of resolving conflict whilst also being the most difficult, dynamic and transformational.  This was identified by academics Thomas and Kilmann in the 1970's and led to their useful ‘conflict mode instrument’ (as seen in figure 1).  When our interests differ we can also choose to accommodate, avoid, seek compromise or compete and win through.  Whether we are managers, diplomats, soldiers or parents we are challenged to decide which approach to take on an almost daily basis. 

Much emphasis in business is placed on encouraging departments and teams to collaborate, and yet as one recent discussion with business leaders indicated to me, collaboration is too much equated with working well together, being a good team player, being flexible and cooperating with others’ needs and goals.  This in effect puts the idea of collaboration into the realms of encouraging people to be nice to each other – by no means a bad thing – but no wonder, perhaps, that so many present found it difficult to achieve such collaboration in their organisations.

The usefulness of seeing collaboration in the context of conflict resolution, lies in the two axes of the Thomas and Kilmann instrument.  These dimensions are ‘cooperativeness’ and ‘assertiveness’, with accommodating and avoiding being variously unassertive/ uncooperative and unassertive/ cooperative, competing being highly assertive but highly uncooperative and compromise being somewhere in between.  The ‘mode’ of conflict resolution that leads to true collaboration is therefore highly assertive and highly cooperative, and it is this state of being that managers in business should be looking for to create the culture of collaboration they seek. 

Of course, this is not at all easy. To think that in each situation different parts of their organisation with different individual needs and aspirations will set aside their plans and be open to creating a not yet identified third or fourth way solution is supremely challenging.  Indeed, there will be many occasions when one view needs to win through for the sake of speed for instance, or that compromise is the most expedient, but the challenge is to see collaboration as a product of both assertiveness and cooperativeness and to work through the difficult process of getting there.  To do so requires mutual respect, depth of relationship and ultimately trust as well as the skills of Dialogue – to suspend judgment, speak one’s truth, really listen and challenge back respectfully.

Within Team GB over the past four Olympic cycles and as the UK Sport World Class Performance programmes have developed, so have examples of collaboration emerged between the 28 Olympic sports.  This is encouraged on a six monthly basis by the programmes review process that asks each sport to identify whether they are ‘red, amber, green or gold’ in status across 15 key performance areas ranging from technical coaching, through sports science and medicine, to morale within the team.  Wherever a sport rates itself ‘gold’ it is deemed to be truly world class in a specific area and it is the job of UK Sport to make the knowledge and practice available to other sports.  For example, lower leg injuries in Modern Pentathlon benefited from the research done into high jumpers, long jumpers and hurdlers in Athletics.  An example of collaboration, we might say, but clearly at the ‘cooperative’ and even altruistic end of the spectrum. 

More in keeping with high cooperativeness and high assertiveness leading to collaboration, is the negotiations required among Olympic teams to agree the numbers of accreditation passes available to coaching and support personnel during Games time – in effect defining who gets to go to the Games alongside their athletes.  On the face of it, this is a relatively mundane administrative requirement, which in actuality is the source of much hand wringing, lengthy lobbying and in some cases high tempered argument!  We might say that for much of the time, this conflict between individual needs and wants was resolved through a mixture of accommodating and compromise with the occasional competing imposed by a more powerful sport (in terms of profile and medal potential) over another.  However, the challenge has been largely overcome by a breakthrough in thinking by Olympic organisers stimulated by GB and other influential teams asserting their needs and seeking to cooperate to resolve the problem.  As a result, for the past three Games national Olympic teams have been able to rotate accreditation passes from those working with athletes in the first week of the Games to those working in the second week, in effect, doubling the size of the support team.  Without the inherent conflict and desire to assert the need to find a solution, perhaps this new paradigm would never have emerged, and this takes us to the heart of true collaboration; namely, that when it happens innovation takes place in a way that could not happen if any single party had held on tightly to only their own needs. 

To understand collaboration, therefore, first we need to really understand conflict.


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