Past experience holding back collaborations

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —November 20, 2008
Filed in Anecdotes, Collaboration

Last Friday I ran a workshop for a client on collaboration. I emphasised collaborative practices and behaviours and at one point I introduced the idea of gaining agreement from their team to “call me on it.” As I was describing this idea I noticed a woman sitting up the back shaking her head, her face flushed with annoyance. So I stopped and asked if she would like to make a comment.

“There is no way in the world I could ever call my boss on anything, let alone his behaviour,” she said. “Can you tell me exactly how you would do that?”

Before I could answer she continued by saying, “I once told my manager he was behaving badly and in the end I had to resign.”

At the end of the workshop I was thinking about what this woman said and how one memorable experience created a belief so strong that it precluded a set of strategies for better collaboration. She was describing what Umberto Eco calls our background books: the stories we tell ourselves that enable and disable us.

I could see where she was coming from and I imagine that her encounter with her manager might have been like my equally unsuccessful one with a branch manager a decade ago. I was working for a management consulting company in Canberra and was one of the first eight employees in the branch. We grew in size and when the first set of leadership roles were announced my name was missing from the list. I was furious. I dwelt on it for about a week without mentioning my fury to anybody at work until one day I was in the office kitchen and the branch manager waltzed in.

“I can’t believe was you did. Don’t you think I’m good enough for a leadership role?” I blurted out.

And before he could answer I stormed out of the kitchen.

I’m not proud of what I did. And it did spell the end of my time with that company. But looking back at that incident I realise now that I wasn’t equipped with the skills to have that conversation. I was unaware of how to conduct a meaningful dialogue and keep the conversation going. Happily things have changed and now I have the privilege of helping others learn these fundamental collaboration practices.

Here is a story told by Umberto Eco illustrating his point about background books, our assumptions.

“All medieval tradition convinced Europeans of the existence of the unicorn, an animal that looked like a gentle and slender white horse with a horn on its muzzle. Because it was increasingly difficult to come upon unicorns in Europe (indeed, according to analytic philosophers, they do not exist, although I am note sure I agree), tradition decided that unicorns were living in exotic countries, such as the kingdom of Prester John in Ethiopia.

When Marco Polo travelled to China, he was obviously looking for unicorns. Marco Polo was a merchant, not an intellectual, and moreover, when he started travelling, he was too young to have read many books. But he certainly knew all the legends current in his time about exotic countries, so he was prepared to encounter unicorns, and he looked for them. On his way home, in Java, he saw some animals that resembled unicorns, because they had a single horn on their muzzles, and because an entire tradition had prepared him to see unicorns, he identified these animals as unicorns. But because he was naïve and honest, he could not refrain from telling the truth. And the truth was that the unicorns he saw were very different from those represented by a millennial tradition. They were not white but black. They had pelts like buffalo, and their hooves were as big as elephants’. Their horns, too, were not white but black, their tongues were spiky, and their heads looked like wild boars’. In fact, what Marco Polo saw was the rhinoceros.

We cannot say Marco Polo lied. He told the simple truth, namely, that unicorns were not the gentle beasts people believe them to be. But he was unable to say he had found new and uncommon animals; instinctively, he tried to identify them with a well-known image. Cognitive science would say that he was determined by a cognitive model. He was unable to speak about the unknown but could only refer to what he already knew and expected to meet. He was a victim of his background books.”

Eco, U. (1998). Serendipities: Language and Lunacy . London, Phoenix. pp 71-72.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

3 Responses to “Past experience holding back collaborations”

  1. Vikki Says:

    Shawn, reminds of a work staff meeting that I used to be quite vocal at, but a younger colleague never said a thing unless someone directly spoke to her. She would then often, after the meeting, make a suggestion or a comment that was wonderful. When I asked her why she didn’t raise it at the staff meeting, she replied “The one and only time I put forward a suggestion at the meeting, my manager pulled me aside later and told me off” – so for the time she worked there (more than 5 years) she never contributed again in that space.
    She was very young, her first real job, and so her only experience of putting forward an idea resulted in a very negative experience. As a consequence, she was very cynical from the get-go when same company went through a management structure change that we were told was going to give us all an opportunity to take more responsibility and treat the business as if it was our own and get rewarded accordingly.
    She was right… her earlier experience reflected exactly the culture of that workplace – where input was encouraged, but only if that input reflected the management view anyway… but have an idea that went contrary to the Executive opinion, and you were shot down in flames…
    She has now worked her way up into a senior position in another, but similar organisation, and I often wonder if how she acts in her role of manager is modelled on her own experiences or is in reaction to them.

  2. Shawn Callahan Says:

    That was an excellent example Vicki. Thanks for sharing it with us. I’m sure it is a common pattern. I wonder how we help people who have had a bad experience to have another go?

  3. Greg Says:

    Your post points out why it is up to the leaders to initiate, then build trust by actually being trustworthy.
    I too (and many others I know) have been burned by believing stories of open communication, speaking truthfully and candidly, and calling the boss on being out of line.
    If there is a genuine desire on the part of leadership to have honest dialog, it becomes a training issue (as much as learning how to design and manufacture widgets). When someone confronts the boss in a way that would normally get them fired, the boss can use that as a training opportunity. But it is up to the leadership to create a safe environment to practice and learn. It is also up to the leadership to communicate the boundaries.

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