I’m working with one of my author buddies on a project (no peeking!). After we spent a couple hours online chewing it over, I was struck by a thought:
Collaboration overload is real, and it’s driven by a few total assholes. Arguing with an asshole is like mud wrestling with a pig. After a couple hours, you realize the pig enjoys it.
To be clear, this is not a story about what an asshole my buddy is. He is excellent. See, when he and I were talking, we spent our time bouncing ideas. Some of them worked, some of them didn’t. We were both clear about what we liked (because even bad ideas have good elements), and what sucked (because 90% of your “good” ideas aren’t going to be amazing; they’ll be terribad). It wasn’t a mutual you-can-do-no-wrong club, it was a mutual how-can-we-do-something-awesome club. We both knew we were good at different stuff. We both knew what our roles were, and how to best help each other. It probably didn’t hurt that, prior to donning our liar hats and becoming authors, we were both senior in our fields.
But, and you know it’s coming: I’ve worked with a lot of people senior to their fields who behave like five year olds.
I believe I have a solution, one practical, one less so. Let’s start with the less practical one.
Back in the day when you were about five, you did stupid things. We all did. Thing is, we still do, but the cardinal difference between us now (I’m going to pretend you’re an adult) and us then is that we no longer have parents watching our every move.
I remember this one time me and a friend thought we were doing our part for truth, justice, and the American Way™ by killing hornets. Hornets sting people, and by inference, come from Satan’s asshole. We rode our bikes to a place where they had a nest, and — at what we thought was a good enough distance — started shelling their location with rocks.
Yes, altruism can be stupid.
What was even stupider was that one of us had the dumb luck to hit something. Prior to that, there were just hornets cruising about, doing important hornet stuffs. After our mortar hit (a rock, probably about the size of your big toe), the hornets changed their definition of “stuffs” to “kill all the humans.” A massive cloud of them erupted, like something you’d see in a horror movie, and they came for us. Not in a specific way, because they had no real idea who was shelling their location, but I figure their design programming said something like, “Put enough guys in the air, stingers out, and you’ll score a hit.”
They were enthusiastic.
I got stung a couple times, as did my friend. The really fortunate thing (which I suspect is why am I alive, as opposed to dead from a billion stings) is that my mother happened to see the tail end of this, and came running. She dragged us to safety. She got stung in the process, but I reckon the bugs left her alone for the most part on account of her yelling blue murder at us. How could you be so stupid? What were you thinking? You could have been killed! Hell, I’ll kill you myself!
She was very clear: we were morons. We had done something not just stupid, but wrong. There was a litany of reasons which had stayed with me to this day.
The problem with us as adults is that we don’t have a handy external governor anymore. There’s no one that tells us when we do stupid shit. This is compounded by our egos, which are further compounded by our perceived successes. As people get more and more senior, they tend to believe they are more and more awesome. Sometimes, about a very specific and vertical slice of skills, they are right. But the internal ego says, I am right about all things. I am in fact a god.
My non-practical solution is to bolt people’s parents to them at all times. Board meetings. When they’re out at dinner parties (especially at dinner parties). And collaborative exercises. Because back when you were a kid, you were taught to share, and play nice. Now you’re an adult? Those rules still apply, but you’ve forgotten all about them.
Well, here we are at the end, and practical solutions. Man, I hate these. They usually require you to do something, and most people don’t like doing things that are hard or difficult.
Let’s play a what-if.
You’re at your next business meeting. You’re speaking with the other party, trying to understand what is going on. They’re being a pretentious asshole, and after a lot of social manipulation you get an outcome that’s best for everyone. But you feel drained, like the life’s been sucked from you. You don’t feel you can talk to someone about it. Bob might say it’s bad for your brand. Mary might say you’re not a collaborator.
What’s really going on is either you or the other asshole in that room didn’t have your governor. You left your parents at home (and let’s be honest, it’s probably the best place for them). No one was there to say, How could you be so stupid? What were you thinking? Share your toys! Let Stan have a chance at talking. Maybe Delilah wants a turn.
You’re at your next business meeting. The other party asks you what you want as a win condition. You do the same, and reciprocate by asking what they think is missing from the current solution space. You both have a chance to suggest to the other what you think they’re good at, rather than putting up a PowerPoint about your many skills and capabilities. After, you both consider how amazing it is that you’re both able to work to your strengths, make something amazing, and have a beer after.
Were you listening to respond, or listening to understand? Was your ego talking, or your heart? Did you want to win, or did you want to win-win? In the “good” outcome, it wasn’t that you or the other party rolled over. It’s that it wasn’t a competition.
My practical solution is this. At your next meeting, imagine a parent is there (whichever one told you to share your toys and not be a huge dick). When you’re about to open your mouth and say something, imagine what your parent would say. That’s just mean. Why can’t everyone have cake? Don’t respond to bullies. Stand by your friends.
As a bonus round, make a list of the people you’ve worked with who make you feel energized. Where it’s not a battle. Tomorrow, or whenever, go talk to them. See what cool things you might make. It doesn’t matter if you find something or not. You’ll feel excellent either way.