Thursday, February 14, 2013

Dissecting Collaborations

Collaborations are difficult because of what psychologists call the “availability bias.” Some people vet an idea when it first occurs to them. They don’t assume they are the first to have an idea or that they are expert at everything.

Others just automatically assume their ideas are great because they occurred to them and set off to proselytize others.  Unfortunately, this is usually at the expense of those with background and expertise on the subject by putting them in a corner.

Elected officials and government administrators are particularly susceptible to those with “availability bias,” because politics not only is  one of the few areas left where access to information is automatically assumed to be asymmetrical but there is an over-reliance on lobbying vs. keeping up with other information that is otherwise made readily available.

You hear it in comments on the floor of legislative bodies when bill sponsors chide peers who ask for time to study lengthy bills by condescendingly directing them to sparse summaries or creating peer pressure to make decisions based only on “who’s asking.”  This leads to democracy being representative only of a powerful few.

Individuals with what cognitive researchers call “availability bias” not only make collaboration more difficult and complex, they often destroy any potential by pitting forces against one another. They can’t fathom such a thing as win-win.

They either join collaborations in name only, leaving all the heavy lifting to others, or they politicize these groups before they are fully formed by creating opposing sides in an attempt to control the outcome or specific details. They have no patience for the interplay of ideas without dictating the outcome in advance.

Occasionally during my now-concluded 40-year career as a community marketing exec, I would be frozen out of a launch or a grand opening that had been enabled, in part, by the organizations I led in three different communities when individuals who with whom I had tried to collaborate maneuvered officials to make sure I was excluded.

Having become more comfortable as “the man behind the curtain” as my friends kidded me (a reference from The Wizard of Oz or the TV classic Lost depending on your age,) the blackballings were amusing and brought to mind an admonition from a friend that with some people “you are either on their team or you’re not.”

With these people, raising questions about their pet projects is never tolerated even when I may have been in a position of more expertise.

Decades ago I took part in a team-building workshop with a handful of other civic leaders in a community I represented that included a collaborator I realize now had “availability bias.”  This included a very in-depth Myers-Briggs analysis that I wish I had kept at hand back then to better understand inscrutable interactions.

I am an XNTX and this person’s inherent preferences made them an EXTJ.

The first letter indicates where you get energy.  I rated an X for borderline but I was actually slightly “I” for Introvert, making me more of an ominivert, someone who creates his own energy but is still functional for brief periods in settings where extroverts thrive.

This associate was a strong “E” for extrovert, meaning this individual’s energy came from other people, an energivore, so to speak.  The amusing illustration linked here explains introverts and omniverts to extroverts.

Had I remembered, this difference would have alerted me to counterbalance this person’s insatiable ability and need to to lobby others, an activity that fueled their energy level.  Individuals such as this are also known as “psychic vampires.” 

My inclination as an introvert-leaning omnivert also explains my comfort at being more the “man behind the curtain” as a means of conserving energy.

However, it is the last three designations that are more insightful about our differences and also why at times the two of us were so complimentary.  I was strongly “N” for intuitive and “T” for thinking, while my collaborationist was on the line between “sensing” or “intuitive” and a “T” for thinking but very close to the line for “feeling.”

This means I almost always informed information gathered through the five senses with more of the “big picture” including concepts, relationships and meaning. On some days this person was on that page with me or would rely on me for the “big picture” when learning more to their sensing side.

We both tended toward thinking or facts and logic when interpreting information but, when this person was leaning toward his “feeling” inclination, “gut” reactions took over along with a susceptibility to “who’s asking.”

When we made decisions, this person was strongly “J” for judging or quick to make a decision based on only a few facets of an issue and greatly irritated if re-opening the decision became necessary based on additional information and data.

I was on the line, meaning I often made decisions that way too, but just as often I would want to inform a decision with other opinions and options as well as more information.  This meant we often got on each others nerves and trust in me eroded whenever my inclinations switched between “J” and “P.”

The missions of our organizations were different. This person’s was narrow and more tangible.  Mine was community-wide and dealt with understanding, integrating, balancing and influencing the values and perceptions of a broad range of fluid audiences both internal and external including those of this person’s organization and constituents.

My world was always both/and and relied on collaborations and strategic partnerships while forces often dictated that my collaborator's were either/or and even zero-sum.

All of this is to say that successful intra-community collaborations are often more dependent on the inclinations of those who lead them than the willingness of the organizations themselves.

Communities seeking genuine collaboration based on mutual respect and what’s best overall vs. the zero-sum push and shove of personal politics or “availability bias” are well-advised to have its leaders undergo well-proven analysis such as an in-depth Myers-Briggs and then to keep the results handy for reference whenever interactions occur.

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