What do people really mean when they ask for ‘collaboration’?

For some time now I’ve been doing a fair bit of work around collaboration – at least that’s generally the starting point. Yet when we dig deeper into what’s really going on ‘collaboration’ may be what someone says they want, but isn’t really what they’re after. The harsh reality is they actually want someone else to simply co-operate, or possibly conform to a set of rules, or to just shut up and comply with the request.

It feels a little less dictatorial to ask them to ‘collaborate’.
But that can cause a great deal of confusion.

Confusion about ‘collaboration’ isn’t surprising when we take a look at some different dictionary definitions:

Oxford English Dictionary

  1. the action of working with someone to produce something.
    “he wrote a book in collaboration with his son”
    synonyms: cooperation, alliance, partnership, participation, combination, concert
  2. traitorous cooperation with an enemy.
    “he faces charges of collaboration”
    synonyms: fraternizing, fraternization, colluding, cooperating, consorting, sympathizing


Collaborate, verb

  1. To work with another person or group in order to do or achieve something
  2. To give help to an enemy who has invaded your country during war


  1. General: cooperative arrangement in which two or more parties (which may or may not have any previous relationship) work jointly towards a common goal.
  2. Knowledge management (KM): effective method of transferring ‘know how’ among individuals, therefore critical to creating and sustaining a competitive advantage. Collaboration is a key tenet of KM.
  3. Negotiations: conflict resolution strategy that uses both assertiveness and cooperation to seek solutions advantageous to all parties. It succeeds usually where the participants’ goals are compatible, and the interaction among them is important in attaining those goals.

Origin: from Latin ‘com’ + ‘laborare’ = to work together

The person (or people) who says they’re seeking ‘collaboration’ when they’re really not may have picked it up as a buzzword about how to work well with multiple stakeholders, different suppliers (who may like to be called ‘partners’ – that’s another post…) or heard about it in the context of start-ups, or different ways of working. It sounds friendlier than asking someone to ‘comply’ with a request or ‘conform’ with how things get done round here.

Personally I’ve no problem with being asked to ‘comply’ if that’s what is required for a situation. Where it gets messy is when people use ‘collaborate’ and it’s not what they really mean. These examples may help you identify whether you and those you work with have been genuinely collaborating, or using the word as a Trojan horse for a different kind of behaviour.

Collaboration is Collaboration isn’t
A combination of both co-operating and assertiveness on all sides
Honesty and openness about what’s important to each party; their interests and concerns
Conversation that allows fair hearing on both sides
Time-consuming, as both parties’ interests need to be identified, discussed – and met
Challenging – those used to wielding authority or choosing acquiescence may find it tough
Creative – truly collaborative solutions tend to be bigger and better than a straightforward joint effort
Compromising, or settling to split the difference
Complying for the sake of peace and quiet, for example with a lengthy and detailed scope of work, terms and conditions
Conceding that one party has more power/expertise/ authority than the other
Conflict – when everyone throws their toys about
Conforming to one party’s ways of working
Commanding others to do things your way – or the highway

You may also find this post useful: Collaboration: overrated or misunderstood?

Image by studiom1 (KURKIN NIKOLAY)

Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’, available now at bookstores and on Amazon.

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