Article #1: The Effect of Status Hierarchy on Collaboration Teams

In last month’s book review of Collaboration (Hansen 09), we highlighted the need for a compelling business case for collaboration (incorporating Opportunity costs and Collaboration costs) to determine if the process will indeed produce better results. In the style of a brilliant mentor and old friend, we expound on the need for a collaboration case:

“You see Who things will knot and be for naught if there is not if there is not there is not certainty but certainly certain uncertainties will meet Who and Who who meet Whos and Whos who meet meet what happens which always happens to happen to Whos in any case except no case also drains the coffers and makes no cents.”

*See Seuss Sense at the end of this article to see this passage with punctuation.

“That was quite confusing, Dr. Seuss,” Who said. “Now I have the jumblies ‒ the same ones I get when natural Who-Team conflicts become battles. For you see, battles happen whenever I’m on a poorly-planned project that lacks any real sense.”

“Precisely my point. And in the stasis of the status in the matters of the ladder, nonsense is the case if no case is also the matter.”

We agree; for even with a good business case for collaboration, new collaborative teams are often conflicted about Status Hierarchy; e.g., a lower-ranking person with the highest expertise is Leader, but because of his/her status in the hierarchy, does not get the regard s/he is due. While conflict muddies and mires a project, alignment about ranking, rights and roles engages people and moves projects forward. At the risk of being formulaic, let us offer a bit of a formula for managing this dilemma. Here are three ‘clean-start’ collaboration steps for forward-thinking Leaders.

When the make-up of the team has been decided and each member has said “yes” to joining (which may not mean accepting, liking, agreeing with or wishing for the role), invite them to a 45 minute, end-of-day, casual gathering before the first team meeting takes place.

Step 1) Post a short intranet notice about the project for the team members, listing the people on the team, their position and role, their support people, plus contact info for all … unless the summer wasn’t hot enough and you want a bumpy ride to Hades.

Step 2) Leverage the informality of the gathering. The informal setting is pivotal as it is about building relationships, diffusing unmet expectations, and establishing an on-going discussion template. This is the oil that lets the project team purr like a finely-tuned engine. Begin the meeting with a five minute intro to immediately stake your claim as Leader, possibly explaining (for under five minutes) why that is the case. We recommend making no mention of others’ roles at this point, not because we want you to flex your ego, but because mentioning other key players at this point may dilute your claim to leadership and increase resistance (if people feel you should not have been selected). Better to leave it for the formal meeting’s role discussions.

Eschewing false modesty, be concise, clear and low-key about why you are in charge—talk about experience: successfully led… skills: good planner… attributes: ‘got your back’ kind of person. If you speak mindfully, your words should: a) cool down resistance to your selection as leader; b) reduce members’ commitment to other hoped-for leaders; c) thwart leadership challenges which engender divided loyalties, team cliques and rifts; d) curtail one-upmanship such as the urge to point-out your every mistake; e) establish your role as chief arbiter and wise mentor. E.g., a low-status member offers a surfeit of ideas/insights; higher-status people are peeved—they feel the majority of input is for them to give.

Step 3) Then, with the following points visible for the group to see, suggest the team split into pairs, each with ten minutes to “discuss your expectations by sharing a) your reaction to the posted roles vs. your hopes b) why those hopes c) loss to you; to all if your reaction holds sway and you don’t embrace the team as it is d) if you let it go, describe how you will do so e) how will you benefit from embracing the team as it is structured”.

As discussions wind down, solicit feedback. If the feedback includes items you feel need attention, note it down for action and assure those raising the issue that you will follow it up. Regardless of the responses you get from team members when soliciting their feedback at the end, we feel the important goal in this first meeting is to establish a spirit of collaboration, rather than to solve every potential problem. As such, we suggest you conclude by saying something to effect of: ‘What counted today is your willingness to: trust others, share opinions, and consider options … which means you can now count on others, plus yourself throughout the project we can now rightly call “collaborative”.

* Suess Sense: Here is the earlier passage, with punctuation marks. Clarity helps, no?

“You see, Who, things will knot, and be for naught, if there is not. If there is not, there is not certainty, but certainly certain uncertainties will meet Who and Who who meet. Whos and Whos who meet, meet what happens, which always happens to happen to Whos in any case; except the case with no case also drains the coffers and make no cents.”

“That was quite confusing, Dr. Seuss. In fact, it made no sense at all.”

“Precisely. And in the stasis of the status in the matters of the ladder, nonsense is the case if no case is also the matter.”

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