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May 25, 2021

We Are Not Collaborating! Playful Metaphors and Mindful Considerations to finally Embrace our Team Projects

Photo by fauxels on Pexels.

Do you also suffer through team projects at work or dread your school group project? Or perhaps your once hopeful community initiative has become painful and you’ve started to avoid or hide more than you seek.  There is a rush to “get it over with,” “power through.”  Or we find ourselves divided into “the bossy one” and the not invested ones, the “not enough” ones. I cannot count how many times my students loudly groaned when asked to team up in the classroom. Their apprehension truly broke my heart and thankfully woke me up to shift my perspective. And now I am a graduate student again and I hear the same groans of resistance to teamwork even though I am studying with fellow peacebuilders! Wow! This alarms me and again truly pains my heart.

The subject is timely, right? We are gathering in our communities in unprecedented ways and not surprisingly finding that the myth of rugged individualism has not prepared anyone for collaboration to say the least. We are suffering because we’re actually not collaborating! Stress, avoidance and bickering pulses in our group projects because, dare I say, “We are doing it wrong!”

In most spaces we are cooperating and compromising and have been erroneously taught to call that collaboration. If there is a power differential or a weak intention of inclusivity, we are most likely just replicating hierarchical systems of domination. We are moving side-to side creating new flavors of the same melting ice cream. For example, we can likely, very quickly, locate examples of cooperation like this in our very own families; Older siblings will assume a domineering authority role akin to their parents’ with their younger siblings to complete a group chore. No doubt, compromise is a useful, often necessary, tool.  However, collaborating is distinct and bigger and braver and we are not reaping the nourishing fruit that comes with it.

Google was also interested in this subject for all the obvious reasons. So they invested in research, called Project Aristotle, a tribute to Aristotle’s quote, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” An important part of Google’s study revealed that successful teamwork is not simply a meeting of great minds. Their research reinforces that successful teamwork largely involves being able to fully show up and feel a sense of psychological safety in order to enjoy and maximize what we can accomplish together. We benefit in inhabiting a Beginner’s Heart-Mind that assists building trust.  So here we are not only unlearning but seeking new-to-us gathering practices.

Firstly, strong collaboration is deeply rooted in attentive listening. Offering our tender, respectful attention allows us to bring our diverse experiences to the table. If we insist on assumptions, let’s assume diversity. Let’s assume there’s always someone in the group that has had a different experience than ourselves or the majority. And let’s assume there is always a diminished voice that will critically benefit the life and energy of our group project if it is drawn forth. Holding and celebrating diversity in our collective bodies is what brings greater possibility of ingenuity and joy. Afterall, isn’t it wise to first ask, “Who is in this room, this circle, this project?” Show yourself to each other! Well, what I mean is, let’s welcome and honor each other’s glorious complexity!

Collaboration absolutely requires risk-taking, dialogue and patience. Let’s muster our courage and go deeper and broader within our ethnicities, within our economic classes, within our genders, within our roles, our parenting, our teaching, etc. Without establishing a group culture of non-judgmental appreciation, we are likely doomed to compromise, and compromise, and compromise some more, until we are replicating group dynamics that mimic the very systems of domination and stagnation we are gathering to abolish. This can often unintentionally lead to holding ourselves, our communities, our vital growth, our health, our businesses, our super cool ideas hostage with these worn-out harmful structures and that’s what generates new unnecessary suffering. Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator and author of Never Split the Difference states, “When the pressure is on, you do not rise to the occasion, you fall to your highest level of preparation.”  So, then, what is our highest level of preparation to collaborate with each other?

May we consider that our most authentic, full expression of ourselves is our highest level of preparation for collaborating? Therefore, a shared need or goal may have gathered us together but it is our diverse strengths (shaped by our distinct stories) that empower us to move forward to solve our puzzles and start construction. We could easily say that our diversity is the seed of our creativity and prepares us to cultivate something new and exciting together. We do not want to bypass or manage what we bring to the table before we even have a chance to get revved up. The wise Mark Nepo’s words,“Listen to everything with your heart-everything-and be still with it before acting on what you feel,” can carry us on an individual and collective level in group projects. Weaving our fine gold threads together as a first step takes our egos and perceived limits out of the center and appropriately puts them in the margins with our doubts.

Secondly, preparing to work together means literally, or metaphorically, constructing a vision board together before taking more direct action and structure. If we prematurely edit our vision before all has been gathered, we can see how that skips a step and drastically cages our imaginations. Seeing and valuing each other first brings greater value to everyone’s experience.  Appreciative Inquiry reinforces our sense of belonging to a project, or to each other, which boosts our potency and our levels of dependability. Win-Win. Or Shine-Shine. Without authentic appreciation all becomes busy work or false performance instead of constructive and powerful. No one likes busy work. No one. Everyone likes feeling valuable. Everyone. And furthermore, it has been proven that creativity and gratitude bring chemical joy to our bodies so nurturing these juices will only increase our willingness to participate. We can stop pretending that “feeling good” is a luxury. Science informs us that it’s a motivator and sustains commitment.

Our vision board will also require varying perspectives. For example, a project about leaping is not successful by gathering only to dissect a dead frog. Or a mural cannot develop beauty if we all insist on only standing close to the wall. Collaboration requires a magnifying glass, the overarching bird’s eye view and everything in-between. Reminding each other to shift between these views can be the majority of the fun.

Often, my beloved comrades will exclaim “I could have finished this easier by myself!” At times this may be true. In certain circumstances, we can finish a project alone much faster and with less conflict if the goal is to only “finish.” That’s kinda missing the whole point. Group projects invite us to grow, share, benefit from and expand each other. Collaborating informs our lives and decision-making in unexpected ways we could never know in isolation. Group work is more about practicing our communication and improving relationships than organizing or polished products. And there’s no rule that says we cannot share how each of us would go about a project alone. Your tried-and-true individual process is only more significant food for thought! It can all go on the table before we decide what goes in the pot.

I personally gain a lot by envisioning that we are a group of unicorns circling up to create a new unicorn. Each project is a new combination that never has been and never will be again. While my metaphor may seem too childish at first glance, I think it conjures just the right amount of magic realism that teamwork requires throughout. Staying present to the uniqueness of each other and of our possibilities is vital. It’s our ongoing communal practice not an exact science.

You are right to ask, “But what about that precious thing called Time?!” Well, the time it takes to give equal voice from the start is less than the time and energy it takes to inevitably argue about positions later, backtrack, or heal from the damage ensued.  Preparation always offers us a sturdy thread of prevention and efficiency. Disagreement will still surface but we will know how to better navigate it with each other while prioritizing our well being. We already know that cutting parts of ourselves off or disassociating in our individual bodies parallels the traumatizing effects on our collective bodies, (groups, families, communities). Our bodies immediately know the difference between compromise and collaboration, the sensations of giving-in compared to valued sharing. So can we please choose to form an all-encompassing approach, for and with each other, that doesn’t continuously make our teamwork painful and damaging.

Lastly, we know but still benefit from the reminder that collaboration is a growth process. Therefore, it does not respond to our force.  Our strength and flexibility must hold hands for the most stability and a lush garden will bloom. A unique rhythm and flow that always accompanies creation will unfold. And perhaps, for the first time, we will be prepared to collaborate with exuberance.

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Andrea Bellini  |  Contribution: 1,295