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Conflict-resolution mode #3: Collaborating -- 'Two heads are better than one!'

An overview of one of five conflict-resolution modes -- collaboration -- and how and when to use it.

The following tip describes the collaboration conflict-resolution mode. Return to the main page for information on the other four modes and how to work with them to help keep your job. Brought to you by CONNECT: The Knowledge Network.


The goal of collaboration is a win-win. For many initiatives, collaboration is the ideal mode because it best satisfies conflicting concerns or needs. Collaboration is also very useful for building relationships, earning trust, integrating teams and creating synergy. Sometimes, however, too much collaboration can begin to border on accommodation, or even avoidance.

A data modeler for a large organization was a natural collaborator. She enjoyed working with other people, learning different perspectives, getting buy-in on ideas and making things happen. For one particular data model she was developing, she wanted to make sure everyone involved was happy with the design. The model affected numerous departments, so she laid out a plan for securing broad involvement.

The first phase of her plan involved a workshop that she developed and led. Each participant was then interviewed privately for additional feedback. Once the draft model was designed, she orchestrated another session to which all participants were invited. In the debrief sessions that followed, however, she began to record dissent on a number of issues. Now that her colleagues were looking at the actual model, not just imagining what it might be like, they had more specific concerns -- and some of the requests turned out to be mutually exclusive.

Her deadline now loomed, but she still wanted everyone to be completely happy with the design. In the process of trying to work out kinks, her deadline passed. Designers were now waiting with nothing to do. Senior management stepped in with a reprimand: the data modeler was accused of analysis paralysis. In fact, she wasn't over-analyzing; just trying too hard to collaborate. She learned the hard way that compromise must sometimes take the place of collaboration.

Ideal uses:

According to the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI), collaboration is characterized by high assertiveness and high cooperation. Following are some ideal uses of collaboration:

  • Integrating solutions -- When multiple sides of an issue are important or otherwise must be integrated, collaboration is the optimal mode.
  • Learning -- When you want to educate yourself about other areas of expertise, or if you want to test your assumptions, collaboration offers a chance to work closely with others.
  • Merging perspectives -- Sometimes, the best answer is a hybrid of two or more ideas. Collaboration often results in such solutions. The whole can definitely be greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Gaining commitment -- When you actively seek buy-in for a course of action or decision, people are more likely to support you. People naturally support the decisions or actions that they help create.
  • Improving relationships -- Collaboration is very useful for building relationships and increasing rapport with coworkers or colleagues. By working "with" someone instead of against them, you gain their trust and support.

Excessive usage:

Although collaboration is often optimal, some people over-use this mode on the false assumption that it's always appropriate. The dangers of overusing accommodation include:

  • Diffused responsibility -- With collaboration, risk and responsibility are shared, which can cause trouble when decisive or definitive action is necessary. Problems can also occur when trying to determine who's responsible for a particular decision or development.
  • Work overload -- Excessive use of the collaboration mode can result in an overwhelming amount of work. Be pragmatic when considering when and where to collaborate.
  • Underutilized time -- Too much time can be spent on trivial matters when you overdo collaboration. When issues are of minor import, delegation should be considered, or even avoidance.
  • Exploitation -- If you default to collaboration, others may take advantage of you as they try to lighten their own workloads. Be wary of letting collaboration become accommodation.

Insufficient usage:

Many people under-use the collaboration mode because they feel rushed, because they don't trust other people, or because they're insecure about their communication abilities. Dangers of underuse include:

  • Long-term losses -- Too little collaboration might mean you're implementing quick fixes in situations where more complex solutions are warranted. Over the long haul, such short-sightedness can take its toll.
  • Limited commitment -- Underuse of collaboration can minimize the input -- and buy-in -- of colleagues and end users. People have a difficult time understanding and/or supporting solutions that do not address their needs and concerns.
  • Low empowerment -- If someone feels that their ideas are not valued by the organization, they begin to feel helpless. Before long, complacency sets in.
  • Lack of innovation -- When people work together to solve a problem, a synergy often results, yielding greater creativity and innovation. Too little collaborative activity has the opposite effect: a lack of innovation, preservation of the status quo.

Necessary skills:

Above all else, collaboration requires solid communication skills. To effectively collaborate, a person should have the following:

  • Empathy -- You must be able to understand the positions, concerns and needs of other people.
  • Tact -- You need to have a way of addressing important issues in a non-threatening way.
  • Analytical capacity -- Good collaborators are able to analyze situations from a variety of perspectives in order to find effective solutions to complex problems.
  • Open mind -- The best collaborators always keep an open mind. This helps them find solutions that satisfy conflicting needs or ideologies.

Return to the main page for information on the other four conflict-resolution modes and how to work with them to help keep your job.


About the authors:
Maureen Clarry and Kelly Gilmore Dignan are co-owners of CONNECT: The Knowledge Network.

CONNECT is the only company that uses a workforce effectiveness approach called Human Performance Optimization™, to connect their clients with the best Information Technology consultants to solve specific business problems. CONNECT optimizes IT personnel performance through management consulting and training around organizational issues related to IT.

CONNECT was featured in The Data Warehousing Institute's (TDWI ) Best of Business Intelligence 2003 for an article entitled, "Predictable Pitfalls, Paths to Partnership." CONNECT is on the faculty of TDWI and teaches regularly on leadership issues related to data warehousing. Other TDWI publications authored by CONNECT include: "10 Mistakes to Avoid When Building a Data Warehouse Team, 10 mistakes to avoid when choosing a data warehousing consultant and How to choose a data warehousing consultant. CONNECT also participates on the Data Warehousing Advisory Board for The Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver.

CONNECT was recognized as the 2000 South Metro Denver Small Business of the Year, and has been listed in the Top 100 Women Owned Businesses, the Top 250 Privately Owned Businesses in Colorado, and by the Denver Business Journal as one of Denver's Forty Under 40 Business Leaders.

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