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Making the Collaborative Process Work

Making the Collaborative Process Work

Two concerns prevent people from collaborating effectively:

  1. They don’t think the outcome will be fair and think they will “lose” what is important to them.
  2. They don’t trust or like the other people in the group and don’t want to work with them. Their personal goals and considerations outweigh the organizational.

If people don’t really want to collaborate, they will often take a defensive collaborative approach, a kind of dig-in-your-heels and dare anyone to ask for a concession or “compromise.” It’s called “positional bargaining.” People who take this approach defend what they have or need or want, and argue like crazy to get or keep it. The approach is almost entirely focused on themselves, arguing loudly to convince others that they are right, an often difficult process that damages relationships.

Why does this happen? In addition to the fear of losing what is important, another motive is ego. The individual needs to be seen as a winner. Unfortunately, that means the other party is now defined as a loser, and who wants to agree to that title?

Collaboration, though, is not about just one person winning. It is about everyone winning, and most people forget that part.

So how can collaboration be more positive even if trust is an issue?

Changing to another collaborative style might offer ways to address, if not overcome, these concerns.

The opposite of the “positional” approach, taking a position and hanging on for dear life, is the “integrative” approach, finding more things to put on the table that can be exchanged in good faith. In this process, we make fair concessions, and get a fair return for what we have offered.

The integrative or us-centered approach addresses the two primary reasons for not collaborating, fear and ego. If we use the integrative approach, then we can assume that our needs and goals will be met if the other party’s needs and goals are met, and we don’t have to be afraid of losing everything that is important to us. We also know that we can refuse to make a requested concession if we have something else of value to offer. If ego is involved, then egos can be built by knowing I had that power to say “no.”

In one mediation over a very large cell-phone bill, the discussion was about by how much the bill would be reduced, the money. In the end, the agreement included not only a reduced fee, but a new and upgraded cell phone and a discount on a long-term contract, and the lawsuit was dropped. That’s expanding the pie, finding more to talk about and trade than might first be recognized.

The idea of “currency” is important in this process. If something has currency, it means that the item has value to at least one party.  Money is certainly a currency, but it may not have equal value to all parties in all cases. Maybe fairness and respect or something else entirely are more important, and therefore, have more currency than money.

Figuring out what has currency for the other party points the way to a satisfactory agreement. For example, often in cases of a hostile work environment, the agreement will include not only damages or compensation of some kind but an apology and a provision for a training program to reduce the possibility of future incidents.  Additional time, reduced stress, contributions to charities, and training programs are all items that were added to what was not originally on the table so that more options could be created and more satisfactory agreements developed.

The value of the integrative approach is that it feels considerably fairer than the positional approach because it has opened possibilities for everyone to get something they needed that might not have been part of the opening positions. Everybody wins in their own ways.

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About Maria Simpson

Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an expert on organizational conflict resolution. She has worked with senior executives and leadership teams to improve team relationships and effectiveness and to build conflict resolution skills. Maria can be contacted at

View all posts by Maria Simpson →

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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