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Is collaboration inherently a good thing?

Dr Carol Jacklin-Jarvis offers three (and a ½!) thoughts on a collaborative approach to leadership for social justice. This is the second blog in a series she has produced for the Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership. You can read her other two blogs here and here.

Recent policy announcements on combatting modern-day slavery turned my thoughts back to the 18th century abolition movement.  Although popular wisdom remembers the campaign as the work of William Wilberforce, it was in fact a network of individuals and organisations that together brought about the abolition of the slave trade.  The campaign called on potters, poets, and politicians to make their message known.  Campaigners developed a network of action groups, and made use of local Quaker meeting houses and evangelical churches to engage with ordinary people. 

So, working collaboratively to achieve social justice has a long track record.  However, research tells us that this collaborative approach doesn’t necessarily deliver the hoped for outcomes – good intentions to work together are fractured by personalities, competition, power games, and the slow pace of progress. 

For leaders, a collaborative approach to tackling complex social issues can be time-consuming, energy-draining, and incredibly frustrating.  In the autumn, we will launch our course on ‘collaborative leadership’ which explores this approach to leadership in depth, but here we offer three (and a half) ideas for reflection:

Collaboration is always relational

This may seem an obvious point, but I have been part of many collaborative partnerships and working groups, and none has ever overtly recognised the need for members to develop working relationships.  Instead, we have spent hours debating terms of reference and decision-making processes – important but no substitute for the relational aspects of collaboration.  Leading collaboratively means making space for the relational aspects to develop.

Collaboration isn’t always comfortable

There are numerous reasons for this.  Working collaboratively requires a willingness to move beyond our own norms, to see the world from someone else’s perspective.  Leading collaboratively involves engaging with but also challenging other people’s understandings of the world, as well as our own.  Inevitably, that will sometimes lead to (hopefully, constructive) conflict.

Collaboration has the potential to push us beyond the known

At its best, this produces innovative solutions to complex problems – solutions that draw on the strengths and resources of all collaboration partners.  But collaboration also pushes us to engage with ideas and possibilities that are unfamiliar and alien to us, and then to push again beyond the ideas into unknown territory and unfamiliar practices.  Collaborative leaders encourage others to walk with them into this unknown territory, and this can be a daunting challenge.

So, collaboration in and of itself certainly doesn’t always feel like an undiluted positive experience.  In our research, we have seen collaborative leaders struggling to make sense of these challenges.  But even so collaboration may at times be the only ethical way forward, even if it is enormously difficult for the individuals involved. 

Collaborative leaders may want to explore the ethics of collaborating – or not, both before a collaboration begins and as it progresses.  I offer this final comment as ‘half a thought’ because I’m not sure that research yet has much to say about the ethical dimension of collaboration.  We hope that our research over the next year will enable us to say more about this.

5th August 2016

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