Collaboration, more than just a checklist item

By lumaxart (Working Together Teamwork Puzzle Concept) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons



Collaboration is an overused term, especially in higher education. I have used it myself, often and broadly. Despite its general overuse, I added it to my top five characteristics that are required to create empowered and engaged employees. So this is my attempt to describe how collaboration looks and feels and how I have sharpened my definition as I work on being a positive leader.

Collaboration is not just a checklist item on a project plan
As a project manager over major systems implementation, I have added collaboration checkpoints to make sure we were actively engaging with the many constituents who wanted input into decisions. This is a vital part of a project when people really contribute to the decision making process so their participation shapes the outcome.

In the past, I often knew what I wanted the outcome to be and treated input and collaboration as necessary and time-consuming checklist items on my project plan. I’ve learned that when this happens for me, I know that I am not really collaborating, but just going through the motions of collaboration. I have certainly been on the other end of this, when I am called into a meeting or put on a committee where the outcome is already determined. When collaboration becomes just a checklist item on a project plan, it feels like a waste of time for everyone involved because it is. When this happens, it increases cynicism and disengagement.

Collaboration is different than consensus
I have often confused collaboration with consensus. They are not the same. Consensus focuses on coming to agreement on a decision while collaboration encourages the sharing of creative and innovative ideas. When I have been in a full consensus environment, it did not feel like an open space of risk and change where ideas could percolate and lead to richer outcomes. Consensus is often rooted in politics and in trying to please everyone, which is not possible when you are a leader. In a full consensus environment, anyone could veto an idea, which I have seen paralyze an organization.

Collaboration is deeper than sharing ideas and experiences
One of the great things about being in higher education is the willingness of colleagues from other institutions to share their experiences. I am at Educause this week, where the entire event revolves around peers sharing what they have learned with others. Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to participate in a workshop at the conference that moved from sharing to true collaboration, as I worked with a peer from Temple to analyze the root causes of barriers in promoting student success across campus.  Collaboration goes beyond the sharing of ideas. It involves working together to create something or to solve a problem.

Collaboration is giving away the power of controlling an outcome
Giving away my desire to control an outcome is the hardest thing for me to do and something that I am continually trying to improve upon. However, my experience is that when I have given away the control and actively partnered with others, things go so much better than when I try to control outcomes. Exerting control is based completely in fear, naturally causes resistance, and makes it harder to get things done. I used to think that it was my job to sell ideas and solutions. I have learned that selling is not collaboration, it is trying to get others to buy into your idea or solution.

Collaboration is actively engaging with willing partners to co-create solutions
I love Eric Dube’s reframing of collaboration as co-creation. The key to full employee engagement is for our processes and systems to be co-created by the people who will be using them. The overwhelming openness to work together across the entire campus on our strategic web project is a recent example of how having open conversations and extending the invitation to help solve long-standing problems is welcomed and appreciated.

Collaboration is creating a safe place to share ideas and openly challenge each other’s ideas
Creating a safe environment for sharing and challenging ideas is perhaps the most critical part being a leader. Actions speak much louder than words. When I am being humble and vulnerable, it creates a safe place for others to do the same.

One of the most powerful ideas that I have embraced as a leader is that it is not my job to come up with all of the ideas or solutions, but to ask good questions to expose ideas that will help the team create solutions. We then can have the conversations that will remove barriers and move us forward.

Collaboration is amazingly fun
True collaboration feels good and is an amazingly fun way to work. It is delightful to create innovative and interesting solutions with others in a supportive environment. I have found that engaging a skilled facilitator or using liberating structures are both helpful in promoting collaboration.

If you are collaborating and it is extremely painful, I would suggest that you or your collaboration partner might be trying to control rather than collaborate. Something to think about this week.

Practicing Giving and Receiving Feedback

Give Without Expecting

I had so much fun at the all-staff meeting we held this week at Temple University and felt very supported by the team as we practiced giving and receiving feedback to create a more open and collaborative culture. We invited all of our IT colleagues from across campus to join us for the meeting and many of them came, which was terrific.

I was able to incorporate some of the feedback from our previous meeting. Specifically, I heard that some team members were uncomfortable at our last meeting because I asked everyone to share personal stories with someone they didn’t know. Also, I received a suggestion to use technology to solicit more honest feedback and make people feel safer. To address this concern, I used PollEverywhere to create anonymous polls scattered throughout the presentation.

fear-to-freedomAfter giving an update on the action items from our previous meetings, I introduced the Fear to Freedom model to the group. This is a simple and powerful tool that has helped me recognize when I am in fear and focused on myself and to manage myself to a more open and free state of mind.

The heart of the training was around how we can think about feedback as a gift that we graciously give and receive from a place of freedom and openness. These are the principles that we asked everyone to follow.

When giving feedback:

  • State facts – be specific
  • Leave out generalizations (all, every, always) and judgement (good, bad)
  • Go direct – preferably in person
  • Check your intentions
  • Ask if the person is open to feedback
  • Use “MRI” – Most Respectful Interpretation – of others’ actions.
  • State the problem from your own observations

When receiving feedback:

  • Listen attentively
  • Say thank you
  • If you are not in a place to be open to feedback, let the other person know
  • Assume the best intentions
  • Ask clarifying questions
  • Avoid being defensive (going to fear)
  • Take the feedback away, determine what you want to do with it

Then we broke into groups of three and alternated roles of giver, receiver, and observer playing several scenarios designed to show how fear can interfere with either giving or receiving feedback.

After the first scenario, I asked the group whether it went as they expected and many of the groups indicated that they were surprised that the gift of positive feedback was not well received. Each person only saw the following information for the role they were playing.

  • Kelly (Giver): Pat is a peer and one of the best people on your team. It has been a crazy couple of weeks on the project and the entire team has been working really hard to make a deadline. Pat really helped you out personally by the way s/he maintained a sense of humor and optimism. You want to let Pat know what a difference s/he made to you personally and the team.
  • Pat (Receiver): You have often felt that Kelly is quite competitive as a team member and a brown-noser and looking to advance at the expense of the rest of the team. You are not sure if you trust Kelly.
  • Observer: Watch to see if the giver asks permission and is specific in the feedback. Watch to see if the receiver sincerely thanks the giver and if there is any underlying tension in the exchange.

One giver described in bafflement, how the receiving partner responded to his sincere thanks with abrupt, monosyllabic thanks that made him want to stop giving praise. The receiver reported that he felt he was being open, but that was not how the giver or the observer felt about his responses.

This simple role play demonstrated how much our internal stories influence our actions and put us into a closed, judgmental, and fearful position. When we take this defensive and fearful stance, we can discount all feedback, even when it is positive, from individuals based on our previous interactions or even things we have just heard about them.

When we can master our stories and stay out of fear, we can break the negative cycle and be in a powerful position to influence and change outcomes. The most common question that I got after the meeting was what if all of our attempts to extend in openness and kindness are rebuffed. My answer was that we can never change anyone but ourselves. If we can stay in a place of freedom where we continue to be positive and open in giving and receiving feedback, we will be happier and more successful and productive independent of whether anyone else changes.

The quote on the picture that I found for this blog answers this question much better than I did. When we are looking for something in return to our gift of feedback, it is our ego showing up. We are focused on ourselves and want validation, not what is best for the person who we are giving feedback. We are operating in fear, not in freedom.

The slides from the meeting with all of the scenarios are available online. My challenge to you this week is to practice giving and receiving feedback using the principles above. I would love to hear from you to see how your practice is going.

Why Positivity Matters and How to Increase Yours


I view myself as a positive person. I am generally happy and have a good sense of humor. I have always thought it was better to laugh than to cry about a situation. However, for much of my career, when I was trying to make a change or solve a problem, I was prone to point out what was wrong and was often harsh in my criticism and analysis.

Last week, I was reminded a couple of times about how demoralizing this is for individuals who are doing their best and working hard. I talked to two highly competent and dedicated team members who described feeling completely drained and demoralized after interacting with their respective bosses who were being critical during most of their interactions. I could relate to the supervisors who were trying to get things done and thought that they were being helpful.

That used to be me.

I have found that positivity is much more powerful than negativity and more effective in motivating others. Research has shown that the highest performing teams have a praise to criticism ratio of 5.6, which means that to perform as our highest level, we need to give almost six positive comments for every one negative comment. Moving to that level of continuous positivity is still a work in progress for me. Replacing critical comments with deep questions is something that has helped me shift toward positivity. I also have become very conscious about giving positive feedback often and, most importantly, I have made a conscious effort to stop condemning and judging.  As I have seen the amazing effects on my teams when I do that, I have been more motivated to be positive and am very thoughtful about when and how I give critical feedback to others.

This last week, I was feeling quite tired and realized that I was not being as positive as I wanted to be. My clues were that I was getting distracted, having an internal negative commentary, and avoiding engaging with others. Here are the things that I did to increase my positivity and energy.

I focused on what I was grateful for. One of my favorite quotes is from Cicero, who said that “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” At the lowest point in my life, I started a gratitude journal where I wrote three things every night that I was grateful for. Some days, I was hard pressed to find something, but that repeated exercise changed my focus during the day. I would look for things to be grateful for so that I had something to write about in my journal. At this point in my life, I have so many things to be grateful for that I don’t regularly write in my gratitude journal. Last week I did daily meditation, prayers, and thought exercises on gratitude that refocused and energized me.

I looked for ways to do small acts of random kindness. Smiling and greeting people is one of the easiest things for me to do. I remember making a point to get to know the people I routinely see every work day, such as the security staff. It is remarkable how this simple practice of positivity gives me energy. This morning, I gave a token to someone who was trying to talk the subway attendant into letting him on the subway for a dollar. He was so grateful and surprised when I handed him a token. He gave me a little wave as he stepped onto the express subway and we both started our day from a better place.

I rested. I spent the weekend recovering and taking real time for myself away from work, social, family, and other obligations. I simply cannot be positive and energetic when I am physically exhausted.

These positivity practices helped me immensely and when I got the email late on Sunday night about an urgent concern with our web site, I was able to view the criticism as an opportunity to improve our service and believe I was able to convey a sense of positivity and hope to the team.

My challenge for you this week is to practice the 3 Cs : no criticizing, condemning or complaining. See if you can practice this exercise for one hour, or even better, one day. I would love to hear about your experiences as you do this.

The Curiosity Challenge

Photo by Nomad Tales –

Curiosity is a mindset that propels deep understanding and learning and is foundational in creating a culture of engagement and innovation.

One of the most impactful lessons around the importance of curiosity was a video I saw in a leadership conference. The speaker asked all of us to count the number of balls that were thrown between the people in white shirts in this video. I was quite pleased with myself for getting the right answer until we watched the video again and I realized what I had missed!

This video was a powerful reminder that we see what we pay attention to and are expecting to see. This means unless we are consciously curious, we may be missing vital information that is, literally, right in front of us.

Being curious is assuming there are things you are not seeing or understanding and seeking others’ perspectives and ideas. Being curious is actively investigating your environment, understanding history, and consulting experts.

Being curious is being open to new possibilities. One of the biggest barriers to curiosity was that I used to think that my main job was to sell my idea or defend what my team was doing. As I have shifted from the mindset of selling to partnering, I have been much more successful because I am really listening and constantly seeking ways to improve. Last year, I was formally coaching a colleague who was leading a second attempt at a project that had failed. She was preparing for her presentation to the CIO and was talking about selling her revamped approach. When I asked her if she liked it when others “sold” her something, I could see she had  a profound aha moment as she said she hated it. We then revamped the interaction as a conversation rather than a presentation. She went into the conversation open and curious and it went very well.

Being curious is being able to suspend judgement and more mindfully move up the ladder of inference. I have written about this in previous blogs, but it is remarkable how many times a day we unconsciously judge what is going on around us. Being curious means understanding how our values and previous experiences shape our perceptions of events. When we stop categorizing things as good or bad, we are in a better position to see what is going on around us.

Being curious is being willing to try something new. When I have been able to step back and observe myself, it removes most of the negative emotions when things do not go as I desire. It also puts me in a better position to measure the effectiveness of what I am attempting to do. I have been trying new exercises in our all-staff meetings to identify the best way for generating ideas and fostering communication. The exercises we used in the second meeting were not as well received by the group as the exercises in the first meeting. I knew this because the satisfaction scores went down and I received direct feedback for which I was grateful. I will take that feedback and use it to define something different for our upcoming meeting.

Being curious is learning from mistakes and moving on. Forgiveness is required for growth and learning, not only for others but for ourselves. When we are curious and willing to experiment and try new things, we will fail and make mistakes. We have to learn what we can from our mistakes and move forward.

My challenge for you this week is to experiment on how you could become more curious. Good luck and let me know how it goes.