Collaborating doesn’t always work for me…

The other day I was sitting in my dentist’s chair with a sore mouth. I have been back a few times since Christmas. Chasing pain in your mouth seems to be an inexact science. Have you had the cold test? If you have teeth like mine you face it with fear. Perhaps you should see a specialist, I heard. They can test you with dry ice, at -60 degrees! I don’t need any more encouragement to avoid that option.


I have a collaborative dentist. It doesn’t always work for me. 

I have a collaborative dentist. You would think, given my vocation, this would please me. But as I sit in the chair with a sore mouth and hear that there is not a definitive solution, that I will not be told what to do, that I have a choice to demand a root canal, ignore it, see a specialist (or, presumably, yank it?) I just think YOU tell ME! YOU are the EXPERT.

So I get it when I look at my client and their eyes glaze over when I say – this is a collaborative process. You are part of the solution. I am here to help you define a solution that will work for YOU. It sounds pat, and frankly, a little too mystical.

I just need you to fix it. Damn it.

Collaboration is an inexact science. Research proves again and again that organizations which collaborate effectively are more profitable, have more engaged employees, are more efficient. But we have all experienced the frustration that ensues from apparently endless committee work and questions which never seem to lead to concrete solutions.
I think we get frustrated because we confuse cooperation with collaboration. We use the terms interchangeably, but I can be cooperative without being truly collaborative. If I cooperate with my dentist, I will not challenge him. I will work with him. I will make my decisions. I will listen to his advice, but I don’t bring any more knowledge or expertise to the table to help inform our interactions beyond my own pain experience. True collaboration requires a much bigger investment. I need to challenge his process, advocate for my own health, research tooth decay and consult with other dentists, returning at my next appointment with my own expertise.

Do we all need to be experts to collaborate? Perhaps not. But true collaboration is a resource intensive activity that requires serious questioning and exhaustive challenge and openness. To truly be collaborative with my dentist, I need to be confident in the belief of my own expertise around my oral health, and be prepared to challenge and advocate in his process as well as his method.

Mediation can help open the window and shed light on difficult issues

Crucial Conversations. Difficult Conversations. Dreaded Conversations. Whatever we call them, there comes a time in the workplace when emotions run high and the going gets tough, and despite all the training and all the practice, conversations break down before they get to where they need to go. In the workplace, when it comes to issues around diversity, around mental health, illness and bereavement for example, emotions, fear of doing more harm, or fear of invading privacy and fear of lack of skills in dealing with the outcome may prevent the conversation from even beginning. Unfortunately, often in these situations, a crisis will ensue before a productive action step is taken.

My colleague Michelle Phaneuf and I collaborated with Morgan Craig-Broadwith of the Canadian Mental Health Association (Calgary Chapter) to demonstrate in front of a live audience a workplace mediation around a mental health issue.  In our simulated workplace environment, a Vice President has offered the opportunity to two vital workplace players to settle their differences with the help of a mediator. Performance has suffered, communication has broken down, rumours are circulating — in short the entire workplace is impacted by the behaviour of two key people.

Mount Royal University Continuing Studies videotaped the session, and we will post that when it is edited and polished.


A mediator can help open the window and shed light on difficult issues, empowering people to reach a resolution before a crisis.

The audience asked some good questions.

When is it appropriate to call a mediator? In the workplace, it can be particularly helpful to call a mediator when poor or no communication between two people in an interdependent working relationship has an impact on others around them and work productivity.

How often is a mediation successful?  The earlier the intervention, the  more likely the success.  Mediation is most successful when the process is voluntary; when the participants have the skills and wherewithal to speak and advocate for themselves; and are well informed about their rights. Mediation can be  mandated by an employer, and still a mediator can invite people to participate.  In fact, when mandated into a room, people have an opportunity to save face with colleagues.

What role does the mediator have to hold people to account who choose not to participate? The mediator’s role is only to facilitate the process, and to ask the difficult questions, not to provide or suggest solutions. A combination of conflict coaching and mediation ensures that participants have the opportunity to explore all their options both inside and outside the mediation process.

What information from the mediation does the mediator share with their client? At a minimum, the mediator will share information about the process and the timing.  The mediator will discuss information to be shared with the participants, and together they will agree on wording and who, if anyone, will receive the information.

What is the benefit of having two mediators? Two mediators have a greater opportunity to work together to hear all concerns. It is particularly helpful to hire two facilitators when dealing with a group larger than two.

FYI Here is your code of conduct

This was the title of an email sent out recently to a surprised worker whose job involves Diversity and Inclusion. It was a story told during a discussion of the 3 tenets of Workplace Fairness: Proactivity, Communication and Collaboration.


An effective code of conduct results from a collaborative process and will reflect the personality and culture of your workforce.

An effective code of conduct results from a collaborative process and will reflect the personality and culture of your workforce.

When we are busy, it is easy to take shortcuts in consultation with potentially dire results. We invented the word proactivity to describe the ongoing, preventative, and proactive process which engages employees within all levels and departments of an organization to consult. The Code of Conduct is a great example; let’s take two scenarios.

Manager A, cognizant of the pressures on her staff’s time and resources, takes on the grunt work of developing the code of conduct. Her thinking is that since most of it is common sense, people will be relieved because everyone is pushed for time. She does recognize that participation is the key to engagement. So, once she has done most of the legwork, she asks volunteers to review, discuss and fine-tune the final document. She is happy to note that there are very few changes proposed to the original document, and she emails it out “FYI” to the full group and staples it to the bulletin board of the lunchroom.

Manager B is not particularly fond of policy and conduct discussions, but recognizes their importance. So, partly out of a desire to offload the task, and partly out of a desire to engage people in the process, he allocates the first 10 minutes of every staff meeting to a Code of Conduct discussion. It takes a few months, but eventually they finalize a document and ceremoniously hang it in the lunchroom during their monthly potluck.

People take ownership of language. Manager A’s language may be clear and sensical, but it is not her staff’s language. When there are bumps in the road, she will be held to a high standard for owning, acting and leading with her code of conduct. Conflict seeks somewhere to lay blame. Manager A and her code of conduct become easy targets.

Manager B involves everyone from the beginning, and as a group, they stand a better chance of holding each other to account for their Code of Conduct. Though he risks Code-of-Conduct-saturation and boredom by drawing it out, there are high rewards for keeping the discussion front and centre, and ensuring there is group buy-in.

Consultation and collaboration require being open to new information and a commitment through all stages of a discussion, not just the final review.