Why It’s So Hard To Collaborate

Many words are written in an attempt to describe the next new thing. These days that list includes: trust, authenticity, collaboration, holistic, personal, sustainability, engagement, and relationship capitalism.

You could make a case that the ‘most likely to succeed’ is collaboration.

Why Collaboration Seems An Obvious Winner

For one thing, the economic benefits of collaboration seem somewhat obvious. Philip Evans of BCG has written about the massive cost advantage accruing to Toyota vs. the US auto producers due to their ability to collaborate with their suppliers. Steven M.R. Covey Jr. has written about the stark cost and speed savings available to those who seek it. I’ve written about it at some length too and in fact collaboration is one of the Four Trust Principles in my own work.

Furthermore, it’s not hard to understand what collaboration looks like. It means cooperating, not fighting. Our mothers taught us that regarding our siblings, and our teachers taught us about playing nicely together in the playground. There’s a sense that ‘we know how to do this.’

So—Why Don’t We Collaborate?

We know why to do it. We know how to do it (or at least we think we do). So why don’t we do it? I learned an axiom about ten years ago from Phil McGee: if you see negativity happening, the odds are good that you’ll find fear at the heart of it. Personal fear.

At this level, I can’t presume to speak for others, so I’ll have to just put out there why I fail to collaborate. And I do fail—constantly. The more calm I get, the more I am capable of noticing just how anti-instinctive it is for me to collaborate.

Let’s say someone calls me to say, “Hi, I see you wrote something about collaboration; maybe we could collaborate on writing more about that, get to know each other, maybe work together in some way?”

My first instant reaction—if I’m honest—is negative. This person is trying to steal my thunder, trying to get something from me. I careen back and forth between dismissing the person and fearing they’ll overpower me. Are they worthy of my time? Worse yet—am I worthy of theirs?

I know the benefits: I’ll learn and grow, and have more chances for good things to happen by behaving collaboratively than not.

And I know how to do it: just say, “Hey that could be really interesting, let’s talk,” and then do so, from a place of curiosity.

And yet—those first instincts rise in me.

I’ve gotten much better at it. I almost always notice those instincts now, right away. Not that long ago, I just lived in them.

Sometimes I get over it and say/do the right thing within 30-60 seconds. Other times it may take up to a day of thinking on it before I end up doing the right thing.

Yet there are still those times I have managed to put things off indefinitely. Or others where the opportunity is now long-gone, and exists only on my should’ve guilt list.

The Logic of Avoiding Collaboration

I don’t really think it’s just me. In the face of astonishingly obvious economic benefits, and a fairly obvious set of “how-to’s,” I think the main reason we don’t collaborate is simple. Simple fear.

There are two simple approaches to lowering fear. One is to mitigate risk. The other is to stop being so fearful. The first one is getting most of the press; we need more of the second.

12 replies
  1. Doug Cornelius
    Doug Cornelius says:

    Charlie –

    The other side to fear is trust. If you are going to collaborate with someone, you need to trust them.

    You need to know that they will respect the interim drafts and not pass judgment on them when they are still in progress.

    You need to know they will share the compliments for something good and not point fingers of blame for something bad.

    Another element is the dismal lack of collaboration is our education system. Students are largely taught to work on their own and are graded on their own individual behavior. It takes a fair amount of teaching to show people how to collaborate and the benefits of collaboration.

    Of course, the supervisor/management may also be unaware of collaboration and may not create the atmosphere of trust needed for collaboration.

  2. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Doug offers: "…Another element is the dismal lack of collaboration is our education system. Students are largely taught to work on their own and are graded on their own individual behavior…"

    It’s curious that one example of a time students collaborate and trust is when, in cohort with one or more others, they cheat. Hmmm. "An honor among thieves" thing?

  3. John Verry
    John Verry says:

    I don’t remember who first promoted the idea of living life from either a scarcity or an adbundance perspective.  Collaboration is logical when you have an abundance perspective and absolutely fightening when you have a scarcity perspective.  While it is not without its challenges, more and more frequently we are collaborating with our "competitors".  Initially the driver was providing benefit to our clients, but increasingly we are finding that by doing so that we are also benefitting ourselves. 

  4. Shaun Dakin
    Shaun Dakin says:


    Very thought provoking post today.  Thank you.

    I’ve often wondered about this question myself.  John’s perspective of your perspective: scarcity or abundance is a good start.

    Personally, I think it does come down to fear.  Fear of the unknown and fear that this person could force me to lose everything that I’ve worked for.

    For example, I’ve noticed during this economic downturn, more than ever before, currently employed people are more likely than ever to NOT help people looking for work.    This makes sense, someone that you don’t really know reaches out and asks for help networking in X company.  Your first reaction is to protect what you have and what you have is your job.

    Why would you help someone you don’t really know?  Even if they are the  best friend of "fill in the blank".  Heck, they could be your brother in law.

    Another perspective is your current level of "success" or maturity as a person or organization.  A mature org has a very hard time collaborating with a start up for many reasons.  Mostly because the start up, however, needs the mature org more than the mature org needs the start up.  There is a power inbalance.

    I know this from running a scrapy little start up non-profit (StopPoliticalCalls.org) in which I had NO track record, NO experience, and NO money.

    I reached out to 1000’s of people and orgs.  Most did not return my calls.  Why would they?  Why should they?

    Who on earth was Shaun Dakin?

    Now that I have (a little) credibility I’m more warry of who I deal with.  I fear getting involved with someone that could make me lose the credibilty I took so long to obtain.


    Shaun Dakin

    The National Political Do Not Contact Registry

    Twitter:  @EndTheRobocalls and @IsCool

  5. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Shaun and John’s coments about scarcity and abundance got me to thinking:

    No one was born fearing another. No one was born with a "zero-sum game" nucleus in their DNA. It’s learned behavior

    In game theory and economic theory, zero-sum describes a situation in which a participant’s gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the other participant(s). If the total gains of the participants are added up, and the total losses are subtracted, they will sum to zero. Zero-sum can be thought of more generally as constant sum where the benefits and losses to all players sum to the same value of money, pride and dignity. In essence, cutting a cake is zero-sum because taking a larger piece reduces the amount of cake available for others. Simply, if you get yours, I won’t get mine. It appears that much of our struggles are driven by the mantra, “How can I prevent others from getting theirs so I can get mine?”


    So what happens if I live my life from a zero-sum perspective? How readily would I be willing to help you “get yours” if I know that by you getting yours, I’ll lose out on me “getting mine”?  Zero-sum folks interact from a fear-based place, living a life based on greed, egoism, hubris, disconnection and dishonesty. What we see happening in the world marketplace is the result of folks living a zero-sum game – millions suffer for the sake of the few, class warfare and cash-warfare, i.e, me vs. you.


    As the number of zero-sum gamers increases, and it is increasing, not mathematically but exponentionally, the number of folks living from a place of love and caring for others decreases. Thus, the "why should I help you?" defensiveness. 


    In the Buddhist tradition, for example, there is a symbolic image known as Indra’s Net – a three-dimensional net filling the whole of space – a network of golden threads at the juncture of each is a jewel which, upon closer inspection, reveals the reflection of every other jewel in the infinite network and as the sparkle in one jewel changes, it is reflected in the sparkle of every other jewel. The metaphor being – each of us is profoundly connected in a web of life and complex social relationships stretching across the globe.


    The Thai monk Bhikkhu says, “The entire cosmos is a cooperative…when we realize the world is a mutual, interdependent cooperative enterprise…then we can build a noble environment. If our lives are not based on this truth, then we shall perish.”


    One reason so few are able to connect and collaborate is they are caught up in a fear-based, emotional reactivity that precludes them from accessing their frontal cortex (the rational and thinking part of their brain) and, stuck in their limbic (emotional) and amygdala (reptilian, reactive) brains, can’t make “sense” of the concept of collaboration and interconnectivity. They are living a “zero-sum” game, fear-based emotionally reactive existence.


    Perhaps reflecting consciously and deeply on one’s need to play a zero-sum game might be enlightening. Some questions to consider are: Do I believe life is a “zero-sum” game”? If so, why? Do I ever consciously reflect on my thoughts, words, feelings, motives and actions around money (or my "piece of the pie" however that takes form)? Do my thoughts and actions around money consistently and congruently reflect higher values? In all of my endeavors, do I seek to realize the highest good for all? What beliefs did my parents and other influential adults have about money when I was growing up? Am I carrying those beliefs. Are they serving me? Do I experience a general feeling of malaise, resentment, anger and agitation much of the time? Torkum Saraydarin says, "Unless we have inner abundance, our material abundance works against our own survival."

  6. barbara garabedian
    barbara garabedian says:

    Sometimes I think we (collectively) are too smart for our own good and just get tangled up in our underwear.

     Awhile ago there was an interesting article and sunsequent books, lectures & programs based upon the leadership principles of geese. The end game being that each team member (goose in formation) brings different skills and abilities to accomplish their goals. They work as a team, collaborate (if you will) for the benefit of the group, without ego and fear…they are "hard wired" to trust each other. 

    With all our Darwinian evolution and Ivy League advanced schooling…isn’t it interesting to see how nature has dealt with success / survival though trust / collaboration/ teaming.  I guess a "silly goose" can have the last laugh.

  7. Marisa Sanchez
    Marisa Sanchez says:

    Collaboration is made difficult by a culture that recognizes and rewards the individual above and beyond the collective.   We see this in business where the business may succeed or fail, but individuals within the same organization are rewarded differently. Even in our highest-profile teams – football and basketball – the team may win but we still seek to name and reward the Most Valued Player, injecting the notion that certain individuals contributed more and should be recognized.

    Charlie’s comparison between Toyota and U.S. auto manufacturers is not coincidental. Japanese culture historically has celebrated the success of the collective without individual recognition – even admonishing it. We were taught as children to get along with others and play nicely, but we were not taught to contribute to something greater without expecting – or at least hoping for – individual recognition. So it’s no wonder that we describe collaboration as difficult or that it doesn’t come as second-nature to us – in our society (and increasingly in our world), collaboration is antithetical to our individual-centric values. I am in the midst of doctoral research on interorganization collaboration and I am finding much more data on unsuccessful attempts of collaboration. (In fact, if you have experiences to share about organizations that did collaborate successfully, I’d love to hear ‘em – [email protected].) 
    So what does this say about trust? There is certainly a connection between trust and collaboration, but perhaps trust and collaboration in an individualistic culture look different than they do in a collective-oriented culture.
    Marisa Sanchez   
  8. Mark Gould
    Mark Gould says:

    I have felt the fear that you refer to. Equally, I have had some really excellent collaborative experiences. I think there are at least two reasons for these different experiences. The existing relationship one has with potential collaborators is part of it (trust is one aspect of this), and another is the language used.

    "Collaboration" is something that builds value for organisations. Typically, this is not the language of everyday life. If I need someone to work with me to resolve an issue, I don’t ask them to collaborate with me, I ask for help. Likewise, if I think I have something to offer someone who is struggling with a task, I offer my help. Within that offer or request is a two-part question or an assertion: in offering to help someone, I am asking whether there is

    1. a gap in their skills, competencies or knowledge that
    2. I can fill.

    Similarly, in seeking help, I am confessing that I have a gap and that I think the person asked can fill it.

    The example of collaborative requests you give ("can we collaborate on this?") do not appear to have that focus — the potential collaborator is vague in their intent, and so uncertainty about their motives is a natural response. If there is no pre-existing relationship, that vagueness is easily compounded into fear.

    The conclusion I draw from this is that good collaboration requires defined roles for each party. As Doug says, there is little collaboration in education. Part of the reason for that is that the point of education is personal. Whilst individuals can learn from collaboration, that is not its point. I think two people who have very similar skills, competencies and knowledge will gain little from collaboration, unless the point of them helping each other is to get a task done more quickly (and even then the mythical man-month kicks in to undermine that objective).


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