(This post draws heavily upon the experiences of Paul Macalindin as described in his book Upbeat, which chronicles his inspiring work with the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. To read more posts in this series go to the March to August 2017 Blog Archive on your right.)
"'It's her choice.'
What, was it really? How much choice did a 17-year-old Iraqi pianist from Baghdad really have? She was being led straight off a plane from Baghdad onto a media band wagon and given one of the top venues in London to platform her cause, but obliged to play while being filmed with virtually no rehearsal. These sounded like unreasonable demands to me."
From Upbeat: the Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq by Paul Macalindin
Above, Paul is describing the reaction of the director of a reality television show in response to his concerns about the demands being placed on Zuhul Sultan, the young woman who played the central role in founding the NYOI. The director thought that what she was asking Zuhal to do was reasonable; Paul thought that her demands were unreasonable.
When people with different priorities, agendas and needs work together there can, of course, be tensions. When power dynamics are not equal within a collaboration, these tensions can quickly escalate into conflicts or solidify into barriers that put distance between people.
Most damaging, however, is when there are different priorities, agendas and needs at play and the differing power dynamics between people are not perceived, especially by those holding the most power.
In the example above, Zuhal, through her musical talent and strength of will, was able to cope well with what was asked (or demanded) of her. As a result, the performances and interviews she gave at the Wigmore Hall, London's premiere chamber music venue, were successful.
But think for a moment: what if those possessing the power associated with a high profile reality TV series made the same requests or demands of Zuhul day after day after day? What if they not only repeatedly ignored Zuhul's differing priorities, agenda and needs but also continually discounted the significance of the differing power dynamics between themselves and Zuhul? What if they consistently made the untested assumption that meeting their 'reasonable requests' was always and unequivocally 'her choice' when, in fact, Zuhal felt she was complying with 'non-negotiable demands' under ever-increasing duress?
Sooner or later something somewhere would likely blow-up and fail spectacularly and all involved, including the most powerful, would suffer the consequences.
This is a scenario which can easily occur within long-running collaborations between partners possessing differing levels of power. If the more powerful always assume that those with less power always freely choose to meet their 'reasonable requests', and if the less powerful always assume that they must always meet the 'unreasonable demands' of the more powerful, then acrimony and recrimination will inevitably result.
This will then be followed by the less powerful retreating, exiting or even rebelling and the more powerful standing baffled amongst the ruins of a failed collaboration.
So, keep in mind that one partner's reasonable request could be another partner's unreasonable demand. When you catch yourself justifying the requests you are making of your partners by saying 'It is their choice.', ask yourself how you know this for sure. When a partner tells you 'It is your choice.' to carry out a request do you agree with them? Are they correct? Checking out these assumptions straight away, as soon as they are made, will help you avoid significant collaboration threatening problems down the line.