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Collaborating with the Enemy
How to Work with People You Don t Agree with or Like or Trust
By Adam Kahane
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2017 Adam Morris Kahane
All rights reserved.
Collaboration Is Becoming More Necessary and More Difficult
The urge to form partnerships, to link up in collaborative arrangements, is perhaps the oldest, strongest, and most fundamental force in nature. There are no solitary, free living creatures: every form of life is dependent on other forms.
— Lewis Thomas
Collaboration is often imperative and usually challenging. And the more we need it, the more difficult we find it.
"I could never work with those people!"
In November 2015, I was facilitating the first workshop of a group of 33 national leaders. They had come together to search for solutions to their country's most critical problem: the devastating nexus of insecurity, illegality, and inequality. Everyone at the meeting was worried about this situation and determined to do something about it, and they thought that together they might be able to do more than separately. I thought the project was important and was determined to do a good job.
The participants came from every part of the society: politicians, human rights activists, army generals, business owners, religious leaders, trade unionists, intellectuals, journalists. They had deep ideological differences, and many of them were political or professional or personal rivals. Mostly they didn't agree with or like or trust each other. In the country and in the group, suspicion and defensiveness were sky-high.
To solve their most important problem, these people needed to work together, but they weren't sure they could.
I thought the workshop was going well. The participants were talking about their very different experiences and perspectives, all together and in small groups, and at meals and on walks and on trips outside the hotel to visit local people and projects. They were cautiously starting to get to know one another and to hope that together they could make a difference.
Then, on the final morning, the project organizing team (eleven locals and my colleagues and me) got into an argument about some things that were not going well: methodological confusions, logistical glitches, communication breakdowns. Some of the organizers thought I was doing a bad job, and the next day they wrote a critical note that they circulated among themselves.
One of the team members forwarded the note to me. I felt offended and upset that the organizers were challenging my expertise and professionalism behind my back. I was frightened that the accomplishment and income I was expecting from the project were at risk. I thought I needed to defend myself, so I sent off first one, then a second, and then a third email explaining why, in my expert view, what I had done in the workshop had been correct. I knew that I had made some mistakes but was worried that if I admitted these now, I would be opening myself up to greater danger. I was certain that overall I was right and they were wrong: that they were the villains and I was the victimized hero.
As the week went on and I had phone conversations with different organizers, my attitude hardened. I thought the people who were blaming me for the problems we were having were unconscionably betraying our team effort and me. I fought back and blamed them. I became increasingly suspicious, mistrustful, assertive, and rigid. I also wanted to keep myself safe, so I became increasingly cautious and canny. I decided that I didn't agree with or like or trust these organizers and didn't want to engage with them on this matter or to work with them anymore. What I really wanted was for them to disappear.
The enemyfying syndrome
This short, sharp conflict enabled me to feel in my gut a challenge that I had been thinking about for a long time. In order to make progress on this project, which was important to me, I needed to work with others. These others included people I did not agree with or like or trust. I slipped into thinking of them as my enemies. This polarization within our team put the work we were doing at risk. Moreover, in this small interaction within our team, we reproduced a central dynamic in the larger national system — mistrust, fragmentation, breakdown — that the project had been established to counter.
In this ordinary incident, I enacted a common behavior or syndrome that I call enemyfying: thinking and acting as if the people we are dealing with are our enemies — people who are the cause of our problems and are hurting us. In different contexts we use different words with subtly different connotations for the people from whom we differentiate ourselves: others, rivals, competitors, opponents, adversaries, enemies. We use these characterizations often, in both ordinary and extraordinary contexts, sometimes thoughtfully and sometimes casually, even habitually. But the enemies are always the others: those people. It's like the jokes about the conjugation of irregular verbs, such as "I am firm, you are obstinate, he is a pig-headed fool." The enemyfying equivalent is "I see things differently, you are wrong, she is the enemy."
We see enemyfying all around us. It dominates the media every day: people identifying others not just as opponents to be defeated but as enemies to be destroyed. These others are variously labeled as nationalists and cosmopolitans, immigrants and racists, corporations and environmentalists, terrorists and infidels.
The 2016 US presidential election overflowed with enemyfying. Speaking of Donald Trump's campaign, comedian Aasif Mandvi explained how enemyfying creates a self-perpetuating vicious circle:
Trump is essentially tapping into the most fearful, racist, xenophobic, fear-based mind-set in this country, but he's also justifying that in other parts of the world. Whether it's ISIS or it's Trump — what they're basically saying is: There's a reason you should be afraid, there's a reason you should feel disenfranchised, there's a reason that you should feel angry, and it's because of those people, over there.
Enemyfying, vilifying, and demonizing pervade political discourse around the world. And we enact this enemyfying syndrome not only in politics but also at work and at home.
I do a lot of enemyfying. I tell myself stories about how other people are messing things up: colleagues, clients, suppliers, neighbors, family. I know that these aren't complete or fair stories about what is happening and that telling these stories isn't a productive way to spend my time. I also know that many people do the same — for example, in couples counseling, which most people enter thinking, "Our problems are my partner's fault, and I hope this counseling makes them understand that they need to change." But enemyfying is seductive because it reassures us that we are OK and not responsible for the difficulties we are facing.
Enemyfying is a way to understand and deal with real differences. It simplifies into black and white our overwhelmingly complex and multihued reality, and thereby enables us to clarify what is going on and mobilize energies to deal with it. But, as journalist H. L. Mencken said, "There is always an easy solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong." Our enemyfying, which feels exciting and satisfying, even righteous and heroic, usually obscures rather than clarifies the reality of the challenges we face. It amplifies conflicts; it narrows the space for problem solving and creativity; and it distracts us, with unrealizable dreams of decisive victory, from the real work we need to do.
The central challenge of collaboration
The enemyfying syndrome that I have observed and enacted is at the heart of the challenge of collaboration.
In politics and at work and at home, collaboration is both necessary and difficult. We want to get something done that is important to us, but to do so, we need to work with people who view things differently than us. And the more important the issue and different the views, the more necessary and difficult the collaboration.
The central challenge of collaboration is crystallized in the tension between its two dictionary definitions. It means simply "to work jointly with," but also "to cooperate traitorously with the enemy." The word therefore evokes both a story of generous and inclusive progress, such as an energetic and creative work team ("We must all collaborate!"), and a story of degenerative and amoral villainy, as in France during World War II ("Death to collaborators!").
The challenge of collaboration is that in order to make our way forward, we must work with others, including people we don't agree with or like or trust, while in order to avoid treachery, we must not work with them.
This challenge is becoming more acute. People are more free and individualistic and so more diverse, with more voice and less deference. Their identities and affiliations are more fluid. Enabled by new technologies, established political, organizational, social, and familial hierarchies are breaking down. Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity are growing.
Increasingly often, we are therefore unable to get things done unilaterally or only with our colleagues and friends. More and more, we need to work with others, including our opponents and enemies — and we find it more and more difficult to do so.
This collaborative challenge is wonderful in that it grows out of the weakening of authoritarianism and subservience. And it is terrible in that, if we fail to meet it, we will produce ever-increasing fragmentation, polarization, and violence.
We must find a way to collaborate more effectively.
We are face-to-face with the challenge of collaboration when we say, "I could never work with those people!" What do we mean by this common exclamation? Maybe we mean that we don't want to work with those people, or that we are not able to, or that we don't need to. In such situations, when we think it is not desirable or possible or necessary to work with certain others, then obviously we will try to work without them or against them: to avoid them or defeat them.
But what do we do when we think it is necessary to work with these others? This might be because we worry that we can't avoid or defeat them, or they have some skill or resource that we need, or we believe it would be wrong to exclude them.
Such situations present us with the central challenge of collaboration. We see these other people's values and behaviors as different from ours; we believe they are wrong or bad; we feel frustrated or angry. Although we know that we have to work with them, we wish we didn't. We worry that we will have to compromise or betray what we believe is right and matters most to us. In these situations, although we see that we need to collaborate with those people, we don't see how we can do so successfully.
How can we succeed, then, in working with people we don't agree with or like or trust?CHAPTER 2
Collaboration Is Not the Only Option
The Art of War is not only about making war. It is in fact a manual for how to work effectively and artfully with extreme and chaotic situations and with any kind of conflict. It not only acknowledges that conflict is inevitable in life but also tells us that we can accomplish our objective without adding to the conflict. That's why people keep coming back to it — not because it tells them how to wage war better but because it tells them that conflict rarely needs to reach the level of "war," where the highly polarized fight exhausts the resources of the parties involved, be they nations, business partners, colleagues, or friends.
— James Gimian and Barry Boyce
We can't work out how to collaborate until we understand when to collaborate. Collaboration is only one of four ways that we can approach situations we find problematic. Collaboration is not always our best option.
The way forward is unclear
John and Mary are at their wits' end. Their son Bob has fallen way behind in his mortgage payments again and this time is at risk of losing his home. They are frightened for Bob and his family and also tired of bailing him out. Should they do what they have done before and give him money to make his payments? Should they use the influence they have over him to make him get his act together? Should they cut him off and let him deal with his own mess? Should they work with him to find a way to deal with this situation? They aren't sure what to do.
This simple vignette illustrates the starting point for any attempt to collaborate to deal with a challenging situation. Things are not going as we want them to, and in particular, other people are not doing what we want them to. We have several options. Should we try to collaborate?
"The miraculous option is that we work things through together"
I first became interested in the potential of collaboration as the result of an inspiring experience I had in 1991 in South Africa. At the time, I was working at the London headquarters of the energy company Royal Dutch Shell, where I was responsible for developing global social-political-economic scenarios: alternative stories about what could happen in the company's future business environment. One year earlier, the white government of F. W. de Klerk had released Nelson Mandela from prison and began negotiations to end apartheid and to move to democracy. Two professors at the University of the Western Cape, Pieter le Roux and Vincent Maphai, had the idea of using the Shell scenario methodology to think through how South Africans could effect their national transition. They invited me to provide methodological guidance to this effort. This is how I came to facilitate the Mont Fleur Scenario Exercise.
Le Roux and Maphai decided to do this scenario work not with a team made up only of their colleagues (as we did at Shell) but also with leaders from across the whole segregated society: politicians, businesspeople, trade unionists, community leaders, and academics; black and white; opposition and establishment; from the left and right. I worked with this team over four weekends in 1991 and 1992. I was amazed at how, in spite of their profound differences, they were able to collaborate happily and creatively and to make an important contribution to South Africans achieving a successful transition.
My experience at Mont Fleur upended my understanding of what was possible in the world and in my own life. On my first trip to Cape Town, I heard a joke that exemplified what I was witnessing. "Faced with our country's overwhelming problems," it went, "we have two options: a practical option and a miraculous option. The practical option is for all of us to get down on our knees and pray for a band of angels to come down from heaven and solve our problems for us. The miraculous option is that we work things through together." I loved this joke and repeated it many times over the years that followed. I could see that through collaborating with their enemies, South Africans had succeeding in enacting the miraculous option.
I was so enthusiastic about what I had experienced at Mont Fleur that I quit my job at Shell and emigrated to Cape Town to devote myself to following the thread that I had picked up there. I was certain that collaborating was the best way to address complex challenges. Over the subsequent decades, I led tens of large collaborations all over the world, cofounded a social enterprise to support this work, and wrote three books on the principles and practices that my colleagues and I were discovering.
From time to time over these years, however, I had experiences that raised questions in my mind about the collaborative option. For example, in 2003, agricultural activist Hal Hamilton and I initiated a large-scale collaboration called the Sustainable Food Lab. This effort, which is still going strong, brings together companies such as Unilever, Walmart, and Starbucks, and nongovernmental organizations such as WWF, Oxfam, and the Rainforest Alliance, plus farmers and researchers and government agencies, to accelerate progress toward a more sustainable global food system.
During our first months of convening the initial members of the Sustainable Food Lab, Hamilton and I talked with many food system leaders about whether they would be interested in participating in such an undertaking. Many of them thought it would enable them to make better progress on their own sustainability objectives, and by mid-2004 we had a large and diverse enough team that we could launch the lab.
But one aspect of our convening work struck me: the thoughtful arguments made by three organizations that we invited to join but that declined. One global company said they would prefer to pursue sustainability on their own as a way to obtain a competitive advantage. An international workers' organization said they would be interested in being part of such a group but not until they had built up their power and could engage with the participating corporations as equals. And a government agency said they saw their role as working apart from other organizations so that they could make and enforce regulations without being accused of bias. All three of these actors had reasons why collaboration was not their best option.
Excerpted from Collaborating with the Enemy by Adam Kahane. Copyright © 2017 Adam Morris Kahane. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
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Table of Contents
Foreword Peter Block ix
Introduction: How to Work with People: You Don't Agree with or Like or Trust 1
1 Collaboration is Becoming More: Necessary and More Difficult 5
"I could never work with those people!" 5
The enemyfying syndrome 7
The central challenge of collaboration 9
2 Collaboration is Not the Only Option 11
The way forward is unclear 12
"The miraculous option is that we work things through together" 12
There are three alternatives to collaboration 15
Collaboration must be a choice 18
3 Conventional, Constricted Collaboration Is Becoming Obsolete 25
Constriction prevents movement 25
Change management assumes control 26
"There is only one right answer" 29
The limitations of conventional collaboration 31
4 Unconventional, Stretch Collaboration is Becoming Essential 39
Stretching creates flexibility and discomfort 39
How to end a civil war 41
Stretch collaboration abandons the illusion of control 46
5 The First Stretch Is To Embrace: Conflict and Connection 49
Dialogue is not enough 49
There is more than one whole 55
Every holon has two drives 59
Alternate power and love 61
6 The Second Stretch is to Experiment: A Way Forward 69
We cannot control the future, but we can influence it 69
We are crossing the river by feeling for stones 75
Creativity requires negative capability 80
Listen for possibility rather than for certainty 82
7 The Third Stretch is to Step into the Game 89
"They need to change!" 90
If you're not part of the problem, you can't be part of the solution 93
Be a pig rather than a chicken 96
Conclusion: How to Learn to Stretch 99
About the Author 126
About Reos Partners 128
A Note from the Artist, Jeff Barnum 130