Are We Succeeding at Collaboration but Failing at Inclusion?

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While I was being interviewed for a leadership position, the VP of something or the other asked which leadership skill was most important to me. I looked the person in the eye and said without hesitation - Collaboration. I was mighty proud of my prompt response. The interviewer looked a bit disappointed and leaned back. Maybe, they expected a more bombastic response and something on the lines of building teflon teams that smashed every goal in their way. To me that is a leadership outcome, not a skill by itself, so I stuck to my guns. I didn't give in and toe the line. Instead, I shared examples for why I chose collaboration and the doubtful look was replaced by a satisfied one. I was hired.

In hindsight, I wish I had known even better and said - Inclusion! I would have been rejected for sure is another matter! To my mind, inclusion sits far above in the hierarchy of leadership skills, if one exists.

Have you had this strange experience when you worked fantastically well with a bunch of team mates and reached the goal on time, but didn't get to know each other more intimately than was necessary to accomplish the task? You understood what frustrated your team mates and what got them involved, but you still weren't sure if they felt understood, accepted and appreciated as people. Come to think of it, you weren't sure if even you fully understood, appreciated and accepted them. Was everyone valued for who they were or just for what they knew and how they behaved at work? Can you confidently say that you would have felt included for the person you were, even if you had failed at achieving that goal as a professional?

There is a possibility of succeeding tremendously as a team, but withholding what people can discover about us or understand of our choices. I've done it, so I know it can be done. I was crushing my team goals and working seriously well, appreciation emails and rewards flew about. While this rush was blinding, over time, I detected and observed intolerance for diversity and genuine respect for people. You were exalted if you achieved a lot and quickly, but that didn't necessarily lead to being valued as a human being. It was a strange feeling to succeed professionally, even be proud of myself, and be so disappointed and disheartened deep down. I felt fake and conflicted, even guilty. The disillusionment was hard to ignore after sometime, and all external success paled in comparison.

Maybe, everyone felt it, but weighed their options to speak out vs wait to be pushed to the wall. I chose the latter. That's what I chose then, I am not saying I am proud of it. So when I did get pushed to the wall there was no constructive way to deal with it. Long held feelings came out in a rush and strongly on all sides. It revealed the true nature of the workplace in a way that didn't prepare everyone. All workspaces are plagued by bias, but when they are not even trying to improve what ails them, then it truly hurts. It could have been prevented if we had a team culture that made everyone feel safe and pro-actively discussed issues that could have become contentious in the future. Those decisions demand a special kind of leadership - Inclusive Leadership. We didn't have it and we certainly didn't understand it.

There is so much focus on collaboration within teams, but the ultimate outcome of collaboration is to achieve agreed upon business outcomes, not agreed upon people outcomes.

Despite good intentions, we might be missing the point by being collaborative alone. As much as I personally value the skill of collaboration, I know it does not automatically lead to feelings of inclusion and mutual respect. We can be productive and successful because of what we choose to measure - the outcomes - and stay broken and scared underneath because of what we omit to measure - the process and culture. In essence, we can be super successful and continue to be biased and prejudiced. That kind of success comes at a high price.

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Here's something that compounds the disconnect between being collaborative and being inclusive. I've taught collaboration to leaders through various programs, and the underlying methodology and purpose was invariably this; I would play a game that was set up to encourage competition. There would be clues scattered throughout the game that nudged participants to collaborate and increase their chances of winning the game. Most would miss it, and neatly fall into the trap set up for them of being selfish and competitive. I saw the utility of the skill of collaboration all those years ago, and I still pride myself on teaching it to myself and others with much success. Yet, I never once taught my audience the value of being inclusive as an underlying pre-requisite to being genuinely collaborative. I never said, let's be collaborative, so we can fully understand the person sitting next to us and how we can engage with them as a human being. Instead, I said something like, let's work with each other in a way that we can consistently achieve team goals as professionals.

Two very different incentives, and two very different outcomes for the long-term.

When we aren't collaborating with the intent of involving the whole person, we are taking from them what we need and leaving the rest to them to deal with. That's opportunistic collaboration, perhaps. Self-serving in a way that doesn't inspire an inclusive culture where diverse people can grow or share of themselves fully.

Being valued is more deeply moving for people than being given an award for a work achievement. The former validates who we are, and the latter celebrates what we do. This is important to reflect upon because who we are is permanent, but achievements come and go. We know this already.

Whom can you get to know in your team, so you can be inclusive of them? Then watch collaboration effortlessly blossom and grow. You wouldn't even need to attend a training!

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