What do we share? What do we keep secret? Two questions, the answers to which are crucial to a collaboration's effectiveness.
This post and the ones that follow will reveal and explore some of the complexities hidden within these two seemingly simple questions.
I will start with what I call the 'status trap':
The status trap
Take a look at the following unrelated articles from the Guardian Newspaper:
The first is about the Iraq Inquiry's agreement to receive 'gists and quotes' of relevant correspondence between Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George Bush. The second examines recent calls for surveillance cameras to be installed in care homes.
Juxtaposing these two articles highlights the powerful role status plays in deciding whether or not to be open with and share information, especially when we consider what the reaction would be if the agreement and call for action were swapped between them.
Calls for the surveillance of the Prime Minister's and President's conversations would undoubtedly be dismissed outright on the basis of national security and the infringement of their personal rights to privacy, and out of respect for their respective offices.
Agreeing that care homes would only be required to submit 'selected highlights' of their work for scrutiny would also be dismissed outright on the basis that it lacked the transparency and rigour necessary to safeguard residents and the quality of their lives.
These are perfectly valid objections. However, think for a moment, the main principles underpinning them can also be swapped around:
Should not the intimate relationship between a care worker and the person they are caring for be confidential? Do not care workers and their residents have a right to privacy? Do not care workers deserve some respect for what they do?
Should not the decision making of powerful leaders such as Prime Minister Blair and President Bush be subject to inspection that is transparent and rigorous? Is not such transparency and rigour essential to safeguard the lives and well-being of the millions of people affected by Government decisions and actions?
If very similar arguments can be applied to either situation, what is causing the difference in the way they are perceived and addressed? It could, of course, be that context is everything, that comparing prime ministers and presidents with care workers is like comparing rhinos with wombats, that very different situations and contexts inevitably need very different approaches.
But could it also be that one group of people have high power and influence and the status that accompanies these, and the other group (including those cared for) do not? Could it just possibly be that perceived status and ensuring that it is maintained at the appropriate level (be that high or low) is playing some part in decision-making, calls for action and the taking of action?
If the answer to the above is yes, then it implies that we are vulnerable to the status trap, of putting the preservation of perceived status (be that high or low) before effectiveness.
A preoccupation with maintaining status can have a powerful impact upon the effectiveness of collaborative working
If the above is accepted, then the maintenance of status, which always involves limiting status somewhere else, is a powerful but often unacknowledged influence on those that make decisions and take actions, and this can be even more marked within collaborative contexts.
Consider collaborations between medical professionals, social workers, volunteers and the public. Reflect upon collaborations between law enforcement professionals and community groups. Think about collaborations between scientists and lay people, and collaborations between faith groups and charities and the people they try to help. Could it be that the decisions these initiatives make about who can see, do and be involved in what (and in what way) are often based more upon preserving status in relation to each collaborator, rather than upon deciding and doing (including sharing) the best things for all involved?
Maintaining status through what we say
If the above is true, then one of the ways organisations and other groups of people maintain status in relation to others is through the use of language. Using formal, bureaucratic or some other type of ring-fencing or distancing language can send out strong messages about who can see, be and do what, and where someone is within a pecking order.
'Professional practice dictates...' easily translates into 'Leave this alone if you do not have professional status.' 'This needs to go before the neighbourhood or elected committee.' effortlessly translates into 'You're not local or elected; you don't have local or elected status.' 'This type of technical data needs very careful analysis.' readily translates into 'You don't have expert status and would not understand this.' 'There are security issues here.' quickly translates into 'Keep your nose out of what does not concern you; you do not have the status of security clearance.' 'You don't understand our needs.' instantly translates into 'Don't understand our needs; we do not recognise your status.'
One of the most extreme examples came from a barrister to a victim of crime: 'You are irrelevant to the system.' which painfully translates into 'You have no status within a legal system that is going to significantly affect your life.'
The implicit message running through all these stock phrases (which I am sure many of you will recognise) is 'We have knowledge, expertise insight and other things that give us power and status, and we will ensure that we keep this status by limiting and defining your access to them and/or the use you can make of them.'
Now, of course there is a need for professional practice, for expert analysis, for maintaining confidentiality, for respecting local insight and elected rights, for respecting neutrality, but they should be used as tools for getting things done, not as alienating and dis-empowering 'status bullets' to aim and fire at people threatening the status quo. They should not become the weapons arming the status trap.
Equating increased informality with decreased respect and credibility
A key reason organisations and other groups use language in the way described above is because they perceive an inverse relationship between growing informality and diminishing respect. This is because, over time, informality tends to dismantle and dissolve the formal, bureaucratic, ring-fencing or distancing language that can close off or at least restrict access to the hard-won knowledge, experience, wisdom and insights which organisations and groups perceive as being the source of the respect and credibility granted to them by others.
This perception of diminishing respect and credibility through increased informality of relationships certainly explains the suspicion many people and organisations harbour for the informal approaches so crucial to effective collaborative working. With a little reflection, however, it becomes obvious that this suspicion is unfounded and even damaging. After all, is it not what people do with their knowledge, experience, wisdom and insights, rather than their mere possession of these things, that dictates whether or not they gain respect and credibility? Suspicion can only lead to hoarding and a lack of sharing, which in turn will only lead to a lack of respect and credibility.
When increased informality is automatically assumed to lead to a loss of respect, it is a sure sign that the status trap has sprung.
Another sure sign that a collaboration has fallen into the status trap is the presence and preservation of local idiocies: helpful information kept secret for no good reason; insisting on originals of certificates rather than allowing copies or scans, even though allowing them would make compliance to regulations much easier than otherwise; joint reviews not allowed even though they would save time and money, help join up services and increase effectiveness; decisions only permitted at specific meetings and at specific times, even though earlier and more flexible decision-making would greatly improve things; being able to hear someone read a document but not see the document itself; not being able to make copies of documents although copies are available elsewhere and the only consequence is the negative one of wasted time; not allowing local people to make decisions about local issues even though they are the people best placed to make them; insisting on unrealistic deadlines that are of no significance whatsoever; closing a route through a local park by a set time each evening, even though doing so means people have to walk at twilight along a busy, non-pavemented road.
If you spot a local idiocy, the only real purpose of which is to maintain and bolster the status of some group or organisation, you will not have to look that much harder for the status issue that is keeping it in place. You will also likely find a collaboration caught within the status trap, a collaboration that has become nothing more than a talking shop preoccupied with maintaining the status-quo amongst all involved.
How to avoid falling into the status trap
There are four ways you can avoid falling into the status trap:
1. Swap arguments to see how they fit. As with the Iraq and care home examples given above, swap the arguments for a decision or action between different problems, situations and scenarios that present similar challenges (the Iraq and care home examples shared a preoccupation with privacy and confidentiality). If they are easily transplanted discuss why you have decided they should apply to one problem, situation or scenario and not another. If the only reasons you can find are focused upon maintaining status, you are in danger of falling into the status trap. Revisit your options again and make decisions and take actions based upon increasing effectiveness rather than upon maintaining the 'status-quo' amongst everyone involved.
2. Express and challenge the meaning you perceive within what people say to you. People talk at us and we talk back, but much of the meaning we perceive remains unsaid within our minds. We hear the phrase 'This needs careful and complex analysis.' and we might perceive it as meaning 'You are not clever or expert enough to handle it.' If we acquiesce to and act in accordance with this unspoken perception we definitely will not be able 'to handle it' and other 'more qualified' people will take care of 'it' for us. The status quo will be maintained; we will have fallen into the status trap. If, however, we express our perception, share what we understand people to be saying to us and then challenge it, maybe we will be offered the knowledge, skills and tools to do the analysis ourselves. The status quo amongst all those involved will have changed.
3. Do not equate growing informality with diminishing respect and credibility
The best marriages are relaxed and informal, but there is also a deep and shared respect for the rules of the relationship, rules to which both parties have agreed. Courts adopt an informal, low key, relaxed approach when dealing with children and other potentially vulnerable people, but most of us would agree that due process is still maintained and respected. Informality does not have to automatically equate to disrespect as long as all parties know the boundaries of that informality, agree upon the rules that will exist within the background of their relationships, and know that they can call upon them as and when needed to regulate and govern interactions and actions.
4. Identify, challenge and overcome local idiocies
Identify local rules and processes (like those described above), that are illogical, irrational and ineffective. They will be easy to find because they will be the focus of much frustration, irritation, and in some cases anger. Question the reason for their existence and, importantly, suggest alternative and more effective ways of getting things done. Gain help in overcoming local idiocies from those who have been frustrated, irritated and adversely affected by them. Gaining support for overcoming local idiocies is one of the best ways of catalysing people into collaborative action.