In the last month, I’ve had the privilege of hosting conversations with two different teams in two very different organizations. They are both equally great.

Each team is made up of collaborative, creative, savvy leaders. Each leader heads up their own team. Each works in complex, dynamic environments that require strategic thinking and excellent people skills, which they all have. They also share a drive for excellence and a burning desire to meet the needs of those they serve.

My kind of people!

What’s Missing?

It might surprise you to hear that each team has also been short-changing themselves.

They’ve been so focused on producing high-quality results and caring for others, that they’ve not made a lot of time to sit together and talk about their own needs as a team.

By deciding to set time aside to tend the fires of their own interpersonal relationships as a collective, they were making a commitment to themselves. They were attending to what they need to flourish as a group mind.

The question we started with in both teams evolved from conversations with my long-time wise collaborator Gordon White. We invited one team to consider what it truly means to collaborate.

This is the question that became a central inquiry and guiding light:

What is the need for collaboration on your team?

That might seem like a basic question.

On the surface it is. But having just watched two different great teams inquire into this very question, the results were surprising, enlivening, inspiring.

This foundational question led the teams to very quickly start to surface a more meaningful sense of purpose together. Here are some important points that were discovered:

  1. Team members were very effective at meeting their own needs. Everyone pulled their own weight and more. The purpose of a team, at this level of awareness, is as a place to exchange information like targets for activities. That is a part of collaboration, and to busy teams focused on producing high quality, that’s where the sense of purpose can end. It’s a familiar enough strategy. We see it most in low context cultures, which are cultures that value communicating directly, quickly and efficiently to achieve goals and outcomes. Information sharing is a foundational purpose in such teams and cultures. That’s important and this question about collaboration has more to yield.


  2. These two great teams were also made up of people who tend to enjoy each other and feel like they can rely on each other as individuals. They want to keep it that way too. Consequently, topics discussed in front of the all tend to stay positive and light. There’s good reason for this, because if a difficult topic goes badly, there’s a lot at stake. To preserve the whole, it can make sense to suppress significant differences and perspectives. That is a familiar strategy in high context cultures, cultures where harmony and close relationships are valued. So, individual feelings and interests are forfeited for the sake of the whole. We continued to consider what is the need to collaborate together, in addition to efficiency and harmony.


  3. What emerged was the power in leveraging multiple perspectives for innovation and creativity. There was a realization, for example, that each had been attempting hard things and systems-wide changes as individuals. They started to see how much more impactful it would be if the group strategized together. The more we stayed with the question, the more to be surfaced and the more we moved into the domain of complexity. Allowing differences to surface makes things more complex. Yet, there is a way of working with these differences dynamically which can contribute to excellence, to meeting the needs of clients in new and optimal ways, and ultimately, in making wiser decisions. That’s where sharing one model for how to have difficult conversations as a team can be very impactful. It gives a common way for how to leverage the differences into a new exciting future.

The Importance of Trust

Starting with the basic question of collaboration can open the door to more discoveries. When teams talk in the way these two teams did together, they start to lay the foundation for allowing differences to emerge.

The conversation itself builds trust within the group that more can be done together and can emerge.

Patrick Lencioni has worked with many teams and has written many books about what he’s learned. In his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, he affirms we need trust for differences and conflict to be able to surface.

He goes on to say that it is only when conflict can surface, that commitment can occur. Otherwise, people hold back and in that way don’t truly commit as they haven’t revealed their differences.

He even has a diagram, drawn as a triangle with five layers to it. I have put his concepts in the positive below, as he is talking about dysfunctions (so I’ve changed them to positive functions).

He put trust at the bottom, as the foundation. Then conflict is the next layer up. Once we have trust and conflict and differences are allowed, then commitment can occur. With commitment, people can be held accountable to their agreements. This journey from trust to conflict to commitment to accountability is what leads to the top of his pyramid: the achievement of the objectives of the team.

Trust can be built much as one builds a bank account. What makes deposits into our shared trust bank accounts is by going through differences time and again and coming out better for having had the conversations.

I’ve seen that in my own life and in the life of my clients. When we get better at conflict, we find the courage to speak our truth. That results in being and feeling more authentic. As I’ve said before, we become more real. That works in two person relationships and that works in the relationship of a team.

Teams, or the team culture, can have a need for trust building and deposits, not just the individuals on the teams. By making the time to tackle a question like what is the need for us to collaborate, teams make a deposit in the team trust bank account.

Talking Circles

Yet, how do you work with differences dynamically as they emerge and in a way that can build trust?

Talking Circles are a powerful technology that allows each person to speak from the heart and listen from the heart. This way of speaking and being together is transformational.

Both teams I worked with had their collaboration conversation in circle.

I was first introduced to Talking Circles when I co-led the first adult criminal court diversion program in Alberta. At that time, I learned about Restorative Justice, and helped shepherd one of the first books in Canada on the topic. We would use circles to bring together offenders, and the victims they’d harmed, to work out appropriate restorative and healing solutions.

I saw and felt the power of circles in those contexts as conversations moved from punishment to reconciliation.

Both time and thinking slow down when sitting in circle. People feel their bodies when they are invited to speak from their hearts and listen from their hearts. One can also pass on talking if wanted and that adds to the spirit of inquiry and discovery. Having a talking piece is also a vital part of the process and helps slow the pace and create the experience.

Circles allow for collaboration and can be an essential tool for teams. These simple guidelines allow an equal playing field for all voices to be heard.

Compassionate Candor

Sometimes people are not sure what collaboration means.

So let’s start with what it’s not:

  • Collaboration is not giving in as those who tend towards harmonizing would do.
  • Collaboration is not suppressing differences, the hallmark of those who avoid it.
  • Collaboration is not forcing your point of view, the domain of the competitive types.

Collaboration, at its fullest realization, is a combination of being compassionate and direct.

One of the members of one of the teams talked about “Compassionate Candor” as the ultimate role of collaboration on a team. She’d been referring to Kim Scott’s book Radical Candor, but I love this person’s phrase much better.

Compassionate Candor means attending to being honest – that’s the candor part. It also means doing so in a way that is compassionate. That’s where the magic is. You find the gems in being able to converse in a way that allows for a balance in talking and listening, in your needs and mine, for power and love. Gordon White and I co-created a definition of collaboration which fits nicely with these definitions as it captures a truism in the balance required. To quote from our course How to Have Difficult Conversations, we said:

“Collaboration is a way of engaging with conflict that seeks to work together for solutions that benefit all parties using a balance of empathy and assertion.”

So What?

Fascinating new directions emerged after the conversations both these teams had.

The first team left with a new vision that together they could enact real positive change at a systems level in their organization. Their inspiration was palpable, especially because as individuals, they’d each faced the frustration of not being able to enact larger change.

Taking the time to pause and talk together in a circle about a foundational question about collaborating allowed them to see and feel the power of joining forces.

The second team left feeling more united in their bonds, as their beloved leader is moving on to another position. The time they took to talk about their purpose and how they aspire to be with each other together, mattered.

To sit in a Talking Circle and discuss what their collective need was to collaborate together allowed them to see and feel their own solidity as a team and helped them be more prepared for the uncertainty ahead.

Each team discovered the essential role of collaboration on their team through allowing the question to be an inquiry.

“Unity, not uniformity, must be our aim. We attain unity only through variety. Differences must be integrated, not annihilated, not absorbed.” … Mary Parker Follett