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Friday 12 October 2018

The secret of collaborative success: encourage meta-relationships to develop between partners

High-performing collaborations between diverse organisations, professions and groups tend to encourage a specific type of relationship between their partners: one that is (by necessity) more developed, subtle and sophisticated than those usually found between people who work together in single organisations and businesses.

As these collaborative relationships are commonly of a higher order than the ones people traditionally form whilst working together, they could reasonably be called "meta-relationships".

This post will identify the characteristics of meta-relationships, and following posts will describe how meta-relationships can be developed.

The characteristics of the meta-relationships found within high-performing collaborative initiatives   

The characteristics of the meta-relationships encouraged within high-performing collaborations (i.e., those which work towards and achieve their objectives most effectively) are as follows:
  • They are holistic. High-performing collaborations encourage partners to get to know each other not only professionally (e.g., to find out about each other's preferred ways of working, expertise and experience, and professional ethics and standards) but also personally (e.g., to find out about each other's personal likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, feelings and opinions). This holistic 'whole person' approach to developing relationships between partners results in a deep mutual understanding and appreciation that can be used as a firm foundation upon which to build trust and mutual respect. Most importantly, in terms of tangible results, it enables partners to support and encourage each other to contribute all that they have to offer (both personally and professionally) to the achievement of a collaboration's objectives.       
  • They are formal and informal. Partners within high-performing collaborations manage their work by creating not only formal agreements and procedures but also informal spaces and activities. This balancing of the formal and informal supports the development of the above holistic relationships and the realisation of the benefits they offer. Also, creating opportunities for informal interaction does two important additional things: 1. it enables personal relationships to develop which can oil the procedural wheels of the collaboration, enabling problems to be addressed smoothly and quickly when procedures and agreements prove cumbersome or inadequate to the task; 2. it provides the space within which innovative ideas can be conceived, gestated and tested before formal adoption.      
  • They are dialogical, relational and conversational. When partners speak together they seek to get to the centre of an argument rather than debate on different sides of it: they seek to be relational rather than adversarial; they look for connections and similarities rather than focus on disconnections and differences. Consequently, their style of language is two-way conversational rather than one-way dogmatic. 
  • They can often encourage friendships to form, but this is not their purpose. The holistic nature of meta-relationships, embracing the professional and the personal and the formal and the informal, can often encourage close relationships to form that eventually become deep friendships that last beyond the lifetime of a collaboration. This is, however, merely a positive consequence of the development of meta-relationships rather than their purpose: their purpose is to create solid foundations of personal and professional trust, appreciation and respect upon which partners can build effective results-oriented relationships. Friendship and liking may facilitate this process, but they are not essential to it; the purpose of meta-relationships can be achieved without the glow of extra-collaborative friendship.           
  • They are resilient and long-term. The firm foundations mentioned above, sunk deep within an appreciation and respect for partners and what they can do, enables meta-relationships to ride-out the storms of a collaboration's many changes and transformations and endure for as long as they are required (which may be for the entire life-cycle of a collaboration and sometimes beyond it). Meta-relationships also owe their resilience to their dialogical, relational and conversational nature. This  enables them to bend with the times and flexibly cope with disagreements and changing situations, demands and challenges.           
  • They demonstrate respect and acknowledge value. Meta-relationships encourage and require partners, through their words and deeds, to demonstrate respect for each other and acknowledge the value each partner brings to a collaboration. These relationship reinforcing actions invariably have a strong positive effect upon partner interactions, enhancing partners' feelings of mutual connection and strengthening mutual trust.        
  • They create empathy and understanding that encourages mutual trust based upon accurate predictability of actions. Over time, the above aspects combine to create a deep empathy and understanding between partners that enables mutual trust. This mutual trust is founded upon each partner's ability to predict accurately what their collaborators will say and do (rather than predict these things inaccurately based upon stereotypical views and misunderstandings). 
  • They create a shared history and an associated healthily rated "personal credit history" of collaboration. The close personal and professional interactions intrinsic to meta-relationships build a unique and mutually valued shared history between partners that, together with the previously mentioned enhanced empathy and trust, creates a healthily rated "personal credit history" of collaboration for each partner: each partner is perceived as a "safe bet" for any loan of resources or other support; it is believed that the partner making the loan and/or the collaboration overall will, sooner or later, realise a healthy return on any investment made.        
  • They prioritise physical and face-to-face interactions. Crucially, and most strikingly, meta-relationships always create space for and prioritise physical (in the same space) and face-to-face (both virtual and actual) interactions. High-performing collaborations appreciate that these interactions meet an instinctive human need for giving and gaining meaningful personal attention. This makes physical and face-to-face interactions highly valued and those that provide them highly appreciated. The appreciation partners feel for having their instinctive need for personal attention met encourages a virtuous relationship loop to form; those that make time for physical and face-to-face interactions inspire others to reciprocate. Eventually, a dynamic and energised interpersonal network is formed that adds significant commitment and enthusiasm to the act of collaborating and the achievement of shared goals.
  • They are based on realism not idealism, which helps them to be contextual and flexible. Knowing rather than assuming partners' views, feelings, preferences, strengths and weaknesses, etc., encourages decision-making based upon specific realism rather than generalised idealism. This knowledge-based realism, plus the previously mentioned emphasis upon creating empathy and mutual understanding through informal dialogue, helps collaborations adapt to the changeable context within which they exist and ensure their continued progress. 
  • They acknowledge and act upon what partners not only make explicit but also imply. Meta-relationships' emphasis upon empathy, mutual understanding, physical attention and face-to-face interaction super-sensitises partners' awareness of each other. This enables partners to not only clearly understand each other's explicit words and actions but also accurately interpret what lies between, within and around these words and actions. This advanced empathy lessens the likelihood that a collaboration's decisions and actions will be undermined by unforeseen reactions and resistance from partners.         
  • They are inclusive rather than exclusive. Meta-relationships grow and expand; the act of creating, maintaining and developing multi-faceted holistic relationships becomes a habit of interaction. Partners who have experienced the benefits of meta-relationships within a collaboration will seek to share similar benefits with those on the periphery of or outside a collaboration (e.g., potential and future partners, partial partners, dormant partners, beneficiaries of a collaboration's work, other interested or influential stakeholders). This ubiquitous development of meta-relationships often leads to the rapid formation of influential webs of support that weave into, around and out of a collaboration. These webs increase the sustainability of a collaboration and significantly enhance its ability to make progress towards achieving its goals.        
  • They encourage open sharing of information rather than selective passing of information. Meta-relationships emphasis upon personal attention and face-to-face interaction (whether this be physical or virtual), together with most if not all of the other facets mentioned above, helps partners develop sufficient confidence in one another to share and explore key information with each other rather than simply pass key information to each other (for it to be interpreted and acted upon as the receiver sees fit). This enhances the quality of collaborative decision-making and the effectiveness of subsequent joint action.         
  • They encourage and are strengthened by curiosity. As partners gain an empathy for each other and begin to understand what each of them is willing and able to contribute, they are encouraged to be curious and look for additional information and insights about each other: a case of the more you find, the more you want. After a while, partners begin to appreciate each other's true potential and the synergies that may be possible now that they are working together. As a result, partners ask each other increasing amounts of questions and demonstrate a growing enthusiasm for exploring each other's personal and professional lives. This deepens and strengthens the relationships between partners, which in turn encourages more mutual curiosity (and so on and so on to a collaboration's increasing advantage).         
  • They are challenging. The deep mutual understanding and trust achieved through meta-relationships provides partners with the confidence to challenge each other's opinions, beliefs and actions. The personal commitment they demonstrate towards each other encourages partners to be tolerant of challenges they make to each other's long held-assumptions and preferred ways of doing things. Additionally, and crucially, the knowledge partners have shared and the insights they have gained about each other enable challenges to be based upon firm foundations of understanding rather than fragile flimsies of assumption. This mutual challenging tests and enhances the efficacy of the decision-making and intended actions of a collaboration and helps define the best path towards success.
  • They reduce the negative effects of status and hierarchy and increase the positive effects of equality and participation. Acknowledging and valuing the personal and the professional; balancing the formal with the informal; being dialogical, relational and conversational; creating resilient relationships based upon demonstrating mutual understanding, appreciation and respect; acknowledging value; building empathy and mutual trust; creating a shared history and gaining a healthy collaborative credit history; prioritising personal attention; being realistic rather than idealistic; being contextual and flexible; acknowledging and acting upon not only the explicit but also the implicit; being inclusive rather than exclusive; sharing information rather than simply passing it on; being curious; being challenging: all these things act together to reduce the negative effects of status and hierarchy and increase the positive effects of equality and participation, helping to maintain an effective balance between the four aspects.      
And, as a bonus, some deep and lasting friendships may be made in the process. 

To find out how to develop collaborative meta-relationships click here.

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