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Leadership Insight | Collaboration Won’t Overcome Poor Communication

“Communication is something so simple and difficult that we can never put it in simple words.

~ T. S. Matthews


Communication = Collaboration ≠ Consensus

One of the most popular words in the business lexicon these days is collaboration.

Everyone seems eager to flatten the organization, get rid of hierarchy, eliminate command-and-control structures and collaborate across broad multifunctional teams.

Wow! That’s quite an objective, isn’t it. But do we really understand collaboration and why it’s become such a ubiquitous battle cry?

Is there anything really new about collaboration?

On most days, I’m pretty sure that collaboration is just the newest sheep in communication clothing, a word designed to give new life to the tiresome concepts of “communication” that remain at the root of so many of our life challenges.

Both are about encouraging people to share information, be transparent in decision-making and work in teams across functional groups without becoming isolated in silos that neither see nor speak with each other.

Lack of Communication is at the root of failed relationships

If you crawl under the hood of most marriages, child-rearing, employer–employee relationships and organizational culture, you’ll find that communication trumps every other reason for relationship failure.

Without honest conversation and candid feedback across all of the various functions, disciplines and locations, the promise of collaboration as a substitute for a “failure to communicate” won’t make the slightest difference.

But Collaboration is NOT the same as consensus

In too many organizations, collaboration also leaches into consensus-building.

Neither consensus nor collaboration is a substitute for leadership.

While collecting input from a variety of disciplines and challenging ideas from every angle is a good thing, making consensus the platform for decision-making is a dangerous byproduct of that approach.

Remember … you won’t BECOME a better leader until you start BEING a better leader. Start by making sure you’re not creating your own distractions and you know where you’re pointing that finger … and don’t forget that it’s impossible to fake authenticity.

Your job is to lead. There’s not always a consensus about how to do it.

As a leader, you’re challenged to make decisions in the best interests of the organization, its shareholders and other stakeholders.

That’s not the same as deciding in the best interests of the those you’ve consulted or making only the decisions with which most everyone agrees.

As a leader, you must make right decisions for the right reasons. Consensus and collaboration are not proxies for weak or irresolute decision-making or surrogates for ineffectual leadership.

Here are three rules to help you get this right.

1. Start with this simple formula: Collaboration = Communication.

In their essence, they’re not very different.

Collaboration and communication are about exchanging views, encouraging direct dialogue and honest feedback, and wrestling with the conflicts and differences that will emerge from that process.

Promote widespread communication, and you’ll find collaboration sitting close by.

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2. Collaboration ≠ consensus.

Consensus is not a substitute for decision-making.

Your job is to make the right decisions, not to get everyone to agree on some decision.

3. Accountability = Trump Card of superior performance.

Somebody always has to have the “A” for accountability to make sure that things actually get done even if collaboration falls short of its objectives.

While you should always consider diverse inputs from both inside and outside your organization, you own the final decision and must be accountable and responsible for it.

Dig deeper into the communication challenges within your organization.

Don’t be fooled by a buzzword like collaboration when it really masks a weak communication process that needs to be fixed.

Collaborate to get fresh ideas, challenge old ones and communicate clearly the expectations you have for your team.

Post this formula everywhere people congregate:

Collaboration = Communication ≠ Consensus ≠ Accountability.

Live by it, and your accomplishments will soar.


This article was published in the September 24, 2012 edition of the North Bay Business Journal, a publication of the New York Times, and a weekly business newspaper which I have served as a regular columnist for over four years. The Business Journal covers the North Bay area of San Francisco – from the Golden Gate bridge north, including the Wine Country of Sonoma and Napa counties. The electronic version of this article, as published by the North Bay Business Journal, may be found here.



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