Debra Allcock Tyler: Collaborative work is a total pain – but a necessary one

Charities spend much of their time trying to be distinctive, but learning to suppress what we think makes us special is a vital, albeit maddening, task

A friend recently told me about a collaboration meeting he’d been part of where one of the participants was being extremely patronising. My friend was really cross.

“Do you think he realised how you felt?” I asked. “Well, I think I made it very clear!” he said. “How?” I asked. He looked at me ruefully. “I raised an eyebrow angrily… which I think he noticed!”

Suddenly there are thousands of charities across the nation collaborating with each other at unprecedented levels. Everyone says this is a Very Good Thing. But to be brutally honest, this collaboration malarkey is one of the hardest things I have ever done. I find my forehead permanently aches from (usually failed) attempts to suppress an eyebrow that persists in shooting upwards.

Working with people who don’t see things the way you do is really tough. Knowing when to keep on arguing your case and when to back down is not easy, or even obvious.

Collaboration can often be interpreted as being about compromise: agreeing to disagree or just sharing information. But I wonder: if there isn’t an agreed common approach, is it really collaboration?

We charities spend much of our time trying to be distinctive. After all, we have to believe that we have a contribution that no other charity can make in our time and place, otherwise what is the point of our existence? Suddenly, in collaboration, we have to do almost the exact opposite.

We have to stop our normal way of thinking and (to a large extent) suppress what we think makes us special in order to do something in common for the common good.

This is no easy task. I’m envious of those of our fellow collaborators who seem to be happily oblivious to the boiling exasperation churning beneath the Zoom line, who don’t have acid tummies from the burning irritation of feeling unheard or the aching jaw that comes with biting down on pent-up frustration.

The elephant in the room is often the unspoken disunity, the deep dis-alignments of principle and practice. In collaborations we’re all (theoretically anyhow) equal, which does have the effect of making things more egalitarian, but it also means difficult conversations are harder to have. There is no one accountable for pointing out the elephant or helping to manage the relationships.

I’ve noticed that often if someone in a group says something that upsets another, we typically gather around the “wounded” and the underlying issue remains unresolved as the “perpetrator” backs off, not wanting to be accused of – oh, I don’t know – being bad-minded?

So why do we do it if it’s so bloody hard?

Perhaps it’s because the unruly eyebrow, the aching and acidic body parts are the price of effecting change that we could never do alone.

There’s a saying: “What comes easy won’t last. What lasts won’t come easy”.

So, yes, collaborative work isn’t easy. But no matter how hard we find it, it is worth doing. Because if we stick at it, we can achieve mighty things that last.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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