Collaboration May Save the World

I’m an optimist by nature, but I’m sometimes daunted by the problems we face: war and human displacement, environmental degradation, global health crises, hunger, and poverty, to name just a few. Complex problems like these make us realize that we need to change many things to make a real difference. If a nonprofit, a business, or a government tries to solve a complex problem on its own, it may not have enough funding, trust or the right jurisdiction to make a difference. It might even create unexpected new problems. But getting organizations to work together across sectors is a powerful way (and perhaps the only way) to make progress on the most vital problems we face. My colleague Barbara Gray and I have written a book called Collaborating For Our Future that describes the potential and limitations of multistakeholder partnerships (MSPs). We draw on examples from around the world to show how to design MSPs, how to address conflict and power issues, and how to navigate the different world views that people bring to them. While they are not a panacea, MSPs hold promise for addressing both global and local problems.

Organizations don’t love you back

When I was a young professor working at a new college campus, many of us were caught up in the excitement of what we were doing: we were growing an institution from scratch that was going to transform our community. There aren’t many opportunities these days to build a university from the ground up, and we were in the thrall of entrepreneurial fever. People worked hard, pitching in whenever needed and sacrificing time for other things outside of work. We created new degree programs, met with community leaders, and built the scaffolding for the future while teaching classes and working closely with students. Faculty and staff routinely worked 12 hour days and came in on weekends. We thrived on the heady feeling of being builders and pioneers.

But as any entrepreneur will tell you, that approach to organization-building is simply not sustainable. Everyone grows tired. Some people burn out, and some become disillusioned when the reality doesn’t match the perfect vision that inspired them in the first place.

The most important lesson I learned from that time period was this: Organizations don’t love you back. You can invest every waking moment in an organization and give it your all, but you can never expect care or loyalty in return. I don’t say this as an indictment of the place where I work — it is a universal phenomenon imbedded in the very nature of organizations. Organizations can’t love you back because when we come together to do something more than what we can accomplish alone, our vision transforms from a perfect idea to a collection of imperfect structures, processes and people who must grapple with the realities of different preferences and limited resources. Under good leadership, the needs of the organization as a whole outweigh the needs of the individual, so sometimes your needs will be out of sync with the collective good. And we don’t always enjoy good leaders. Under bad leadership, the ego of the leader or the needs of a few special favorites take priority. Either way, the organization doesn’t love you back.

You might be thinking, “Wait a minute, I know of some places where workers are appreciated and valued.” Thankfully, there are plenty of great organizations. But never forget that they are great because of the people that work there, not the organization itself. The people make the place. Organizations can’t love you back, but people can.

More than twenty years later, I see the broader implications of this statement for leadership. Leaders are responsible for the collective good of the organization, but they are equally responsible to “love people back.” This means leaders as individuals must strive to treat people with respect and compassion (even when are tired, angry, frustrated, or fearful). It also means that leaders must actively build a culture that encourages everyone else to do the same. Respect and compassion make it possible for us to work through our differences, and make people feel valued and whole. We know in advance that humans can’t perfectly achieve this, but imagine how great it would be to work in a place where love (in the sense of philia — care within a community) is a central value.

Fascination with organizations

Organizations fascinate me because they are an essential element of what we do as humans. We organize into groups to live, learn, work, fight, and worship. Usually we name our organizations and create elaborates rules around them (like businesses and government) but organizations also include informal groups where people are linked by a common purpose.

Organizations are also a fundamental part of who we are. Try describing yourself without mentioning any of the organizations that you are connected to. That’s easy, you might think, I’m a parent, friend, artist, engineer, or athlete. But take a second look at those identities and how often they are connected to organizations. An athlete is an individual, but has usually been part of multiple clubs, teams, schools, and associations that have helped them become an athlete. It’s hard to separate who we are from the organizations that have helped us become that person.

So why study organizations? We humans seem to do an excellent job organizing ourselves into many different kinds of structures without any help from scientists.

One important reason is that how we organize affects what we do and who we become. How we organize reflects and influences our power and status as individuals and in groups. Consider the difference between non-profit and for-profit organizations–they have different purposes, operate differently, and produce different results. Societies receive different things from these organizations and so have created rules that treat them differently with respect to laws and taxes. But the lived experience of working for a nonprofit is also different from working for a business. Fundamental, unspoken beliefs about why people have organized to work together have a huge effect on what is talked about, what is considered a priority, what decisions are made, and how people feel about their work.

Take a moment to think about the organizations you are connected to and how they are shaping who you are.