Working With Those Whom We Do Not Trust or Agree With or Like

It is generally assumed that we are most productive when there is a substantial synergy with those with whom we are working:   colleagues or counterparts with whom we have a high degree of mutual trust, a shared vision and set of core values and an enjoyment in each other’s company.   That makes sense:   as often as not conflict about any or all of these can divert energy or keep us from getting things done that need to be done. 

Thus it caught my eye when I saw the title of a book that was published a while back – Collaborating with the Enemy.   The title of the book seemed a little over the top.  But the subtitle captured the dilemma perfectly:   “How to work with people who you do not agree with or like or trust.”   What I appreciate right from the top is two things.  First, that in our world we do not need to sentimentalize our working relationships.   There are those in our work world whom we struggle to like – differences in personality perhaps – or hesitate to trust, either because of past experience or because their style or approach to work does not lend itself to mutual trust.   They do not nurture trust; and, we know, that there are those who will try to undermine us.   And then, there is no avoiding that we are in work situations where there is a significant difference of opinion on what matters and on what needs to be done.   But second, the other assumption of the title is that working with others – when there is minimal trust, etc. – is possible.   And, more to the point:  necessary.    If we can only work with those with whom we have high synergy, we likely will get little accomplished.   

May God give you many colleagues with whom you have this high synergy.  But when it is not there, let’s not throw up our hands or despair; let’s learn how to work with those where agreement and collaboration may be a little more difficult.   It is, indeed, an essential institutional capacity.   

As it happens, I have not read the book – Collaborating with the Enemy.  But I did read the introduction, largely because I noted that it is written by one of my favourite authors:  Peter Block.   Block did not disappointment; indeed, it was such a good introduction and overview that I no longer felt the need to read the actual book!  I will keep that in mind when I ask someone to write an introduction to one of my books.    As he notes – Peter Block, that is – in our deeply polarized age and when so much would fuel distrust on the one hand and a refusal to compromise on the other hand, with those who are the “enemy” because we differ on core values – the need to work with others is more imperative than ever.   In government; in the civic square; in our churches; in our institutions.   With our neighbours. 

Block highlights that “collaboration” is not a negative word; we can and must learn to work with those with those with whom we differ.   First, he notes that this is only possible if there is some basic agreement that change is needed, of course – that the status quo is not acceptable.   But the point is that there a consensus that something needs to be done. 

Second, we have to search for shared convictions and where our values might overlap.   Sure, sometimes we agree that change is needed, but we are headed in opposite directions.   For the work of collaboration, we look for common ground – points at which we can at least start a conversation about what it is that matters to both of us. 

Coming to common ground means that we find a way to avoid polarizations:  the economy or the environment; immigration or security.   Or whatever the polarization might be.   And this means that we are attentive to what it is that matters to the other, even if we perceive that perspective to be one-sided. 

Third, Block reminds us of the importance of humility – that we sustain an awareness that we do not have all the truth, and that we need to find ways to appreciate other perspectives,   And fourth, there is the call to shared learning.   Yes, we might struggle with this relationship but is there a way in which together we are gaining new insight into a challenge or opportunity? 

This does not for a moment mean that we can then easily and confidently move forward and get a lot accomplished.   There will still be an impasse, no doubt, on some issues on which we are seeking some kind of progress or resolution.   But the point remains:  we can learn to work with others even when trust is low, mutual appreciation is minimal and values are not shared.  Indeed, this might be one of the key capacities for those who are seeking to foster institutional intelligence and capacity.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.