There’s a persistent belief in the C-suite that responses to disruptive events — like a deadly pandemic that never seems to end — must include inter-department collaboration. The truth, however, is that forced collaborations don’t always work. In real life, the result is often a corporate train wreck.
The usual scenario triggering forced collaboration is familiar. New obstacles rise up. Agile competitors, restrictive regulations, shifts in consumer habits, supply-chain disruptions, and so on.
Panicky executives come up with a plan. It includes forced collaboration between corporate departments that usually work more or less independently.
For example, to handle quick moves into new markets, the C-suite orders formal collaboration between Business Development and Compliance. The objective is to streamline identification of compliance issues and find early solutions. “Avoid false starts and bottlenecks,” the C-suite says. “Integrate compliance into the business development process.”
That sounds logical, rational, and smart. So why doesn’t it work? After a few months, why is the collaboration an outright flop, even causing several experienced compliance officers to depart for other companies?
The root cause of the failure is fear.
Lisa Kwan has spent about a decade researching why some forced collaborations succeed and others fail. Her seminal 2019 HBR article — “The Collaboration Blind Spot” — opened a lot of eyes.
Groups feel threatened when told “to break down walls, divulge information, sacrifice autonomy, share resources, or even cede responsibilities that define them as a group,” Kwan said.
That conclusion seems obvious but isn’t. Too often, executives neglect the behavioral aspect of forced collaboration. They focus instead on “logistics and processes, incentives and outcomes.” It’s an engineering approach to management that “makes perfect sense,” according to Kwan.
Except that people and groups aren’t machines. They don’t automatically do what they’re told or what’s expected. They have emotions, including fear and insecurity.
When a group without a strong self-identity is forced to collaborate, it fears the worst. “Is our expertise no longer valued?” “Doesn’t the company trust us anymore?” “Are we being replaced?”
Even when completely unjustified, those fears trigger predictable behaviors. The threatened group won’t share information. There’s no sincere attempt to cooperate. Under perceived threats of extinction, all efforts go toward self-preservation. External challenges to the organization become less important than the group’s survival.
At a critical time when the company needs strength, cohesion, and innovation to meet new challenges, it is weakened by internal resistance, factionalism, and recalcitrance.
But Harvard’s Dr. Kwan, who teaches executive leadership at the B-School and acts as a collaboration consultant, describes steps to a hopeful alternative.
Start by finding out if the group has a strong self-identity. Confident groups can accept change while insecure groups resist it.
Group security comes from “identity, legitimacy, and control.” When those are missing or weak, collaboration becomes threatening.
What should executives do? Before changing org charts and workflows, know “how each of the involved groups perceives itself. What is each group proud of? What differentiates it from others?”
With that knowledge, executives can build a group’s confidence, if needed, thereby turning a potential collaboration train wreck into a fruitful initiative.