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January 3, 2007 » 7:59 pm

Power Relationships and Collaboration

At the Open Collaborative Services Initiative meeting three years ago, I met David Hartzband, who at the time was VP of collaboration technology at EMC. We had several fantastic conversations, including this thought-provoking claim: True collaboration cannot exist in a hierarchical relationship.    (LQK)

I disagreed with him then, and I disagree with this now, but I think I understand why he made this point. I was reminded of it again a few months ago, when Eugene Chan and I were having a conversation about the foundation world. He said that he wished fundees would be open with their program officers about the challenges they faced, but that the natural power relationship between funder and fundee discouraged it.    (LQL)

This, I think, was the essence of David’s argument. Would you approach someone with a problem if that person was in the position to punish you for being in that predicament in the first place? This scenario applies to both hierarchical relationships within an organization and relationships between competitors. It’s further complicated by the presence of money.    (LQM)

Even if your answer is yes, the fact remains that power relationships affect interpersonal dynamics. When you’re trying to improve collaboration, it’s better to be explicit about these relationships than to wish them away.    (LQN)

A great example of this phenomenon emerged from the CIA workshop last September. Upper management there both encourages internal blogging it and are some of the most active practitioners. However, as the workshop revealed, there is still a tremendous fear of blogging amongst the analysts. The roadblock? Several people blamed middle management, whom they claimed actively discouraged blogging, even while upper management said and did the opposite. Many also cited an incident where an analyst got punished for writing something. (Others insisted that this was an oversimplification of what actually happened.)    (LQO)

In response to these and other comments, Jerry Michalski (my hero when it comes to pithy wisdom) said, “Familiarity and fascination trump fear.” The fear in this case was a consequence of the power relationships. A more accurate (although less alliterative) word for “familiarity” is “trust.”    (LQP)

Today’s San Francisco Chronicle reported the following stats from a recent Florida State University study:    (LQR)

  • 39 percent of employees surveyed said their supervisor failed to keep promises.    (LQS)
  • 37 percent said their supervisor failed to give credit when due.    (LQT)
  • 27 percent said their supervisor made negative comments about them to other employees or managers.    (LQU)
  • 23 percent said their supervisor blames others to cover up mistakes or minimize embarrassment.    (LQV)

The problem isn’t that power relationships are inherently bad for collaboration. The problem is that most organizations do not have enough trust. Building trust is hard and takes time. But it’s possible.    (LQQ)

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