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Collaborative Relationships: Collabor(h)ate


Collaborative Relationships: Collabor(h)ate by Dr. Deb MashekCollaborative Relationships: Collabor(h)ate by Dr. Deb Mashek
Collaborative Relationships: Collabor(h)ate by Dr. Deb Mashek

“Intellectual humility revolves around recognizing our limitations, acknowledging that as humans, we can't possibly know everything or see every perspective; it opens up the understanding that our knowledge and viewpoint are inherently limited ... Intellectual humility, I believe, is the key to approaching problem-solving and collaboration in a more inclusive and effective manner.” Dr. Deb Mashek

Dr. Deb Mashek, business advisor, professor, and author of the book “Collabor(h)ate: How to build incredible collaborative relationships at work,” shares her unique perspective on collaboration, highlighting its importance in various settings and debunking common misconceptions. During the interview, we delved into the key ingredients of a successful relationship and explored the concept of seeking growth through connections with others.


Stephen Matini: In your book, I came across the idea that three factors—your parents, your PhD, and your upbringing in a trailer park—served as your inspiration to learn and focus on collaboration.


DB: Absolutely. I refer to them as my three great teachers of collaboration. Regarding the trailer park aspect, I grew up in a double-wide trailer in North Platte, Nebraska. Some might hear "trailer park" and cringe, but I found it fantastic. Our play area was defined by a chain-link fence, and beyond that, kids were largely left to their own devices.


Growing up in the seventies, the trailer park would come alive around 9:00 AM, and we had to collectively figure out how to play, establish rules, and deal with rule violations. Consequences were determined, and those who broke the rules had to make amends, fostering social skills crucial for navigating life and relationships.


Then there's the aspect of my parents both struggling with alcoholism throughout my life. It's an unconventional teacher of collaboration, but growing up in challenging households teaches you to fulfill your needs independently. In my case, forming connections with other adults outside my family became vital for obtaining essentials—whether it was food, clothing, or even rides to school.


Through these relationships, I learned crucial skills for collaboration: understanding others' needs and interests, expressing my own needs effectively, and making them relatable to others. It was an essential lesson.


Lastly, the third factor you mentioned is the PhD. It was never assumed I would attend college, let alone graduate school. Thanks to positive teachers and cheerleaders throughout my life, I found myself at Stony Brook University in New York. In my very first seminar on the Psychology of Close Relationships, taught by Arthur Aaron, I became enamored with the research dedicated to understanding how to navigate relationships effectively.


Discovering there was a research area dedicated to this was eye-opening, and delving into the literature felt powerful. It filled a personal void, considering I hadn't grown up with many models for successful relationships. This academic journey allowed me to approach relationship development from a unique angle. All three experiences were pivotal in shaping how I study, think about, and assist others in collaboration.


SM: When you talk about relationships, are you referring to any kind of relationship, or are you focusing on a specific type such as personal or professional relationships?


DB: The research area I was involved in focused on romantic relationships. So when I taught the psychology of relationships, it covered everything from starting a relationship to breaking up and everything in between – that was the scope of my research.


However, there's a rich research literature that spans various relationship types, including parent-child relationships, friendship development, and workplace relationships. Essentially, any situation involving an "us" constitutes a relationship, and there's existing research literature for it.


I initially started with romantic relationships, but during my research fellowship, I began contemplating relationships within jail inmates. As a professor at Harvey Mudd College in California, my focus shifted to exploring students' connections with their dormitories, residence halls, and their overall sense of connection to the campus. Soon after, I expanded my perspective to consider how institutions could be in relationships with each other, leading to the formation of collaborations.


One significant insight I gained – and am truly grateful for – was realizing that the theories governing individual diadic relationships still apply at the institutional level. It's not that the institutions themselves collaborate; it's the people within those institutions collaborating. 

These individuals have hopes, dreams, fears, anxieties, and needs, just like individuals in personal relationships. Leveraging the same theoretical models for these collaborations became immensely valuable in terms of how I could contribute meaningfully to people's understanding of and engagement in collaborations.


SM: Considering all your experiences and studies up to this point, what is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the word "relationship"?


DB: As a mom, my immediate thought goes to my relationship with my child. All relationships involve a sense of mutuality, a commitment to caring for and contributing to someone else's well-being, with the expectation of reciprocity, mutual care, and concern.

When people reflect on their lives at the end, discussing their highest highs and lowest lows, relationships often take center stage. Relationships encompass pain, but they are also sources of exquisite fulfillment and love.


Considering our work histories, I recall the colleagues I loved working with. Another prominent thought is the role expectations play. There are numerous scripts dictating how relationships should be—the idealized Hollywood representations, for example, with that one perfect relationship we strive to emulate. Yet, there are countless ways we can fall short of both our own and others' expectations in the realm of interpersonal relationships.


SM: If I were to inquire about the ingredients of a good relationship in your opinion, what comes to mind?


DB: The theory that underpins most of my research aligns with the same two elements. It's known as the self-expansion model. The core concept is that we all strive to enhance our efficacy in the world, meaning our ability to achieve our goals and dreams. We achieve this by adopting new resources, perspectives, and identities as our own, and relationships play a crucial role in this process, termed "including the other and the self.”


Consider a relationship between you and me. Over time, I start to see the world through your eyes, enhancing my perception. Our relationship leads me to take on new identities, such as the identity of "us" or "we" as a couple. In essence, a relationship becomes a means of becoming more dynamic in the world, equipped to face challenges.


Visualize two circles representing you and me. As these circles draw closer, the shared interstitial space in the Venn diagram becomes part of who I am. However, there remain parts of my circle that are unique to me and parts of your circle that are unique to you. This distinctiveness allows for a wealth of diverse perspectives to enrich the relationship.


In my dissertation research many moons ago, I explored the notion of feeling too close within a relationship, experiencing a sense of suffocation. When I posed the circle question to participants, they expressed feeling smothered, losing their sense of identity. Preserving autonomy, individuality, and identity is crucial. Taking away these aspects can lead to feeling minimized and not true to oneself—an undesirable and uncomfortable state.


SM: You opted for a unique title for your book, Collabor(h)ate, which I find intriguing. How did you come up with it?


DB: Collabor(h)ate. It's a title that sparks both love and hate reactions, but I believe the important thing is that we're discussing it. Personally, I am passionate about collaboration. I see it as an incredible tool, having experienced collaborations that radiated with positive energy and yielded effective outcomes, as well as those that were downright miserable.


As a psychologist, I believe it's crucial to address the challenges if we hope to make collaboration more bearable and productive for a broader audience. So, I added the "h" in the title. Instead of just "collaborate," it's "Collabor(h)ate." This inclusion represents my way of acknowledging the difficulties inherent in collaboration. By giving voice to the challenges, we create the opportunity to improve and enhance the collaborative process.


SM: Is there something specific that is currently significant to you, and readers should pay attention to?


DB: Absolutely, there are a couple of key points, and I'll go through them quickly as they all tie together. First and foremost, collaboration is indispensable in the workplace.

Secondly, despite its importance, collaboration is genuinely challenging. With numerous moving parts, potential pitfalls, and significant consequences for missteps, doing it well is no easy feat.


The third point is that we don't teach collaboration. Very few of us have received formal professional development on how to be effective collaborators. Our learning often happens through osmosis or on-the-job observation, which may involve picking up bad habits from others. Reflect on experiences with group work, perhaps in business school – how much formal instruction on collaboration was provided? Unfortunately, for most, the answer is no.


There exists a cultural misunderstanding that assumes people are either naturally good or bad at relationships. We don't formally teach skills for being good parents, friends, or romantic partners. Similarly, there's a lack of structured education on collaboration. The book addresses this gap by offering concrete strategies to enhance relationships and make collaborations less painful and more productive. The goal is to remove the "H" from collaborations, rendering them smoother and more effective.


SM: It seems there are common misconceptions about collaboration. Can you share some examples of these misconceptions that might hinder people's understanding and effectiveness in collaborative efforts?


DB: That's a misconception because it's not the right tool for everything. In certain situations, you need to move swiftly and operate within an established structure and hierarchy.


Another misconception is equating any form of working together with collaboration. However, there's a continuum of collaboration, ranging from networking—simply exchanging information—to more advanced levels where individuals modify their work to achieve shared goals. Moving further, collaboration involves sharing resources such as people power, knowledge, money, equipment, or space.


True collaboration goes beyond sharing resources; it entails learning from others in the group to enhance individual skills and collectively create something that none could achieve alone.


There are several mistaken beliefs about collaboration. One is the idea that hiring inherently collaborative people will automatically lead to increased collaboration in the organization. This is not true. Similarly, the notion that having excellent tools and processes, such as project management tools, will guarantee great collaboration is a misconception.


At the organizational level, there's a belief that declaring collaboration a core value, displaying it on letterheads, or painting it on office walls will foster collaboration. However, creating the conditions for such complex behavior requires more than spirited energy around a keyword.


SM: If a client approaches you, expressing concerns that their people aren't collaborating or being accountable, and they genuinely want to foster teamwork, what would be the initial step to guide them in the right direction?


DB: As a social psychologist with a deep-seated research inclination, my first instinct is to assess the situation. I prefer engaging in qualitative research, talking to as many individuals as possible to understand the underlying issues. When conducting one-on-one discussions, I ensure no one else is in the room to avoid interference from social and power dynamics or coded language that might hinder genuine communication.


Whenever feasible, I find value in running a quick survey to identify whether the issue lies with people, relationships, tools and systems, or organizational culture.


Concerning culture, it could range from leadership expecting collaboration while the reality is the opposite, to a disconnect between stated values and actual behaviors. For instance, if collaborative behavior is encouraged verbally but individual performance is the only aspect rewarded, there's a misalignment that needs addressing. Evaluating incentive structures is crucial, as saying you want collaboration while rewarding individual efforts creates conflicting expectations. Addressing these misalignments is essential for genuine collaboration to flourish.


SM: Have you experienced working in a team that collaborates effectively, even within an organization lacking an overall collaborative culture or cross-functional synergy? Is it possible to have isolated pockets of collaboration within a non-collaborative organizational environment? 


DB: Exactly as you described, these pockets or isolated moments can indeed exist. It might be due to the presence of a particularly charismatic connector or a leader who has fostered the right conditions within their division or department. 


This localized synergy is fantastic, and everyone within that team desires it. However, in most organizations, it's crucial for individuals to move across teams or divisions. People might acknowledge that within their specific team, collaboration thrives, but outside that bubble, the reality might differ.


For organizations aiming to enhance collaboration, it's essential to delve into the workings of these successful groups and understand what makes their collaboration possible.


SM: With the abundance of project management tools available, ranging from Slack to various others, what would you recommend as the first step to ensure effective information sharing through these tools?


DB: The initial point here is not to mistake a good tool for a silver bullet that will automatically foster collaboration. In essence, don't overly rely on the tool itself to fix collaboration issues.


Secondly, it's beneficial to establish an organization-wide decision on a specific subset of tools to be used. Otherwise, individual teams might adopt their preferred tools, leading to information silos and hindering collaboration across teams.


The third piece of advice involves thoughtful consideration of the tool's intended functions. For example, I personally find virtual whiteboards like Mural useful and use them daily, but tools like Asana, ClickUp, and Monday don't align with my preferences. It's crucial to assess whether adopting numerous tools makes sense for a small business or if it's more suitable for a large corporation.


Another piece of guidance pertains to creating structures around tool usage. Whether it's Slack, Google Drive, or similar platforms, implementing shared vocabulary, naming conventions, and folder structures ensures that information is organized and accessible, benefiting both your future self and collaborators in unforeseen circumstances.


SM: I've observed that every group tends to gravitate towards what makes sense for them. I've also noticed that simpler tools are more likely to be adopted. When something is overly complicated or involves extra steps, people tend to shy away from using it.


DB: We're all busy, and when a new tool is introduced, it requires significant activation energy to get us to the point of using it. If we genuinely want people to embrace a new collaboration tool, we need to allow time for learning and integration into workflows. Patience, both with ourselves and others, is crucial because it's a challenging process.


Reflecting on my experience at Heterodox Academy, when we adopted Salesforce, even as the executive director, I struggled to adapt. It took considerable effort to document emails, and I'm not sure if I ever fully mastered it despite my best intentions.


I recently heard from someone teaching social media effectiveness that he dislikes Calendly. He believes it makes you appear lazy and implies automated relationship building instead of being genuinely present in interactions. The back-and-forth emails or LinkedIn messages, according to him, are integral to relationship building. While I may not discard Calendly entirely, I find his perspective valuable.


SM: You mentioned intellectual humility. Could you elaborate on that?


DB: Certainly. Intellectual humility revolves around recognizing our limitations, acknowledging that as humans, we can't possibly know everything or see every perspective. It opens up the understanding that our knowledge and viewpoint are inherently limited. Collaboration becomes powerful when we engage with others who bring different perspectives to the table, creating a more comprehensive understanding.


For example, if we were on video, I might show you a coffee mug from a specific angle and ask what it is. Different people might see it as a rectangle, a circle, or just a shadow. It's through collaborating with individuals with diverse vantage points that we can weave together a holistic understanding of a problem and formulate effective solutions.


To me, intellectual humility is a fundamental aspect of problem-solving and collaboration. It goes hand in hand with curiosity, sincerely asking others how they perceive a situation. Whether it's from a disciplinary, cultural, seniority, or divisional perspective, understanding what elevates the issue for others is crucial.


Ego-driven approaches, where someone assumes they have the sole right answer or imposes their perspective forcefully, can shut down collaboration. It limits possibilities and prematurely closes off certain considerations. Intellectual humility, I believe, is the key to approaching problem-solving and collaboration in a more inclusive and effective manner.


SM: How do you stay intellectually humble over time, especially when many people become more certain as they age? What keeps you curious and open-minded?


DB: Here's something I consistently do; if we were on video, I would show you that on the front page of my notebook, I always write the question, "How do you see it?" It serves as a reminder to seek other people's perspectives, scanning the environment for things that challenge my intuition or don't align with my existing understanding.


For instance, this is why I enjoy attending magic shows—they trigger intellectual humility by presenting something my brain insists can't be true, forcing me to acknowledge that I might be missing something.


The third practice I value is embracing encounters with individuals who perceive the world differently than I do. Instead of distancing myself, I lean in and ask, "Tell me more. How did you come to think that way? Where does that belief originate?”


This approach has been crucial in my advocacy for viewpoint diversity on college campuses. The idea is to surround ourselves with individuals who bring diverse perspectives to complex issues, be it policy, politics, or solving social problems. The goal is not necessarily to find the right answer but to better understand the problem at its core.


SM: What would you suggest as a simple step for individuals who find themselves at opposite ends to bridge the gap and progress to a different level?


DB: Here's a quick backstory: I was previously a full professor of social psychology at Harvey Mudd College, reaching the peak of my career with tenure. However, the turning point came with the 2016 United States presidential election, particularly the surprise victory of Donald Trump. Many people, especially on college campuses, were stunned and struggled to comprehend how anyone could support him.


Observing this, I realized that as educators, we weren't effectively exposing our students to a diverse range of perspectives. In response, I made a significant decision to step away from my tenured position, relocate cross-country as a single mom (with my eight-year-old), moving from California to New York. The purpose was to contribute to the launch of Heterodox Academy, an organization dedicated to promoting viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement on college campuses.


Through this experience, I discovered two simple yet powerful practices: asking others how they see things and inquiring about the journey that led them to their beliefs. The goal isn't to persuade anyone but to exercise the ability to see through someone else's eyes, even if just for a moment, expanding my understanding of the world.


SM: Currently, with your diverse professional engagements, what stands out as your primary focus, demanding a significant portion of your time and attention? Is it a present initiative, or are you constructing something for the future?


DB: Presently, I operate as a collaboration consultant, a term that can be a bit perplexing, especially at social gatherings. The combination of "collaboration" and "consultant" often leaves people unsure about my role. Simply put, I assist organizational leaders in facilitating high-stakes collaborations across various divisions and stakeholders.


This involves scenarios where individuals from different sectors must unite, teams within a division need to collaborate, or situations with substantial financial, resource, reputational implications, or strategic advantages at stake. I thrive on getting involved at the grassroots level when these collaborations are in the early stages. While I'm sometimes brought in when things start to unravel for crisis management, I truly enjoy being there from the beginning to help establish and nurture these collaborations effectively.


SM: In the course of your commitment and work, do you find that your energy sometimes gets depleted? If so, when you're feeling low, are there specific actions you take to uplift yourself?


DB: Indeed, it can be challenging. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it sustainably and positively. However, the difficulty is worthwhile, and one thing I do to lift my spirits is to ask myself, "Why is it worth it?" Understanding the value of what we're trying to achieve, the collective effort we're putting in, is uplifting. The realization that what we're striving for together wouldn't exist without our collaborative efforts is powerful. It's worth it for solving significant world problems, introducing innovative solutions, and boosting the company's financial success.


Improving teamwork leads to more engaged and constructive staff, fostering longevity and enhancing morale and well-being. Whether it's about timelines, financial outcomes, well-being, or innovation, collaboration holds substantial importance. This perspective serves as a motivating force for me.


Another strategy, especially during challenging times, is retreating to my hidey hole for some solitude. This aligns with the notion of needing separateness to excel in collaboration. Recognizing the messiness and unpredictability of human interactions, I appreciate the importance of stepping back, recharging alone, and then re-engaging in the collaborative process.


SM: Throughout our discussion, we covered various topics. In your view, is there something specific that you'd like our listeners to grasp from this conversation, considering all the aspects we touched upon?


DB: I'd emphasize the importance of seeking feedback on your collaborative skills. Take the initiative to ask for input from your direct reports, supervisor, and peers about their experiences working with you. Understanding how you can enhance or modify your approach for better collaboration is crucial.


In a similar vein, prioritize your professional development in the realm of collaboration. Whether you're a seasoned executive or a newcomer to the team, there's always more to learn in this domain. Investing in your development not only benefits you but also contributes to the success of your team, organization, and, on a larger scale, society. Improved collaboration makes a positive impact across the board.


SM: Thank you for generously sharing your ideas, extensive research, and experiences. It's truly appreciated.


DB: My pleasure.


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