The designated adult in any situation will remind everyone at some point to collaborate. From play room to board room we have all heard ‘Just play nicely’, or ‘I want you to work together on this’.

When any re-organisation or transformation programme is announced, the term ‘collaborate’ will appear right up front. We talk as if collaboration were a little second -nature habit that we just temporarily forgot about.

But it isn’t.

Lots of ‘change misery’ is caused by an unconscious taking for granted of what is in truth a profound, particular, and valuable skill. Collaboration is not like breathing: it takes practice, it is learned.


Consider animals, as Dr Doolittle nearly said.

An intrinsic dynamic of animal behaviour is ‘resource guarding’. In any sub-optimal environment (which means anywhere that doesn’t feel completely secure and benign) a dog, say, will display what appears to be hugely aggressive behaviour if the food supply (for example) is approached by a stranger.

The gradual training to trust that that there is no threat, that more food will appear is one of the most highly regarded and prized behaviour change programmes that experts in the animal behaviour field offer.

Back to human animals.

Collaboration at any level involves sharing. Sharing resources. In any hierarchical structure (Safe? Benign?) we have all seen behaviour that might be called aggressive – or unhelpful. It is designed to protect resources: a natural and valid behavioural response to an unsafe environment.

The word ‘rob’ is hidden in ‘collaboration’. An unconscious but powerful fear lurks there. If you really want collaboration, then first set up the conditions for collaboration.

Encourage and support a culture that is not a zero-sum game.

Reassure everyone, kindly and patiently, that they no longer need to aggressively guard resources.

Collaboration can begin when the growling has stopped.

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