What does it take to work together well? What do you think?

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by Ruth Wallsgrove
Milton Keynes, Milton Keynes, United Kingdom,
Created on 29 Jul 2017

I would like to explore intelligent co-operation - how we work together in pairs, small groups, big teams to create and grow, ultimately to learn about ourselves. I have been drafting some sections/ blog posts/ blocks of experience and theory, and thought I would post them here and see how it works. Explore what we can use CC for - and also see if anyone else would like to intelligently co-operate on this....



Sat, 07/29/2017 to Mon, 12/31/2018

What is Intelligent Co-operation?


To work together intelligently and productively we do have to start with a basic belief that the other person has value. For that matter, we have to start with the belief that we ourselves have value.

Intelligent co-operation is working with another person to mutual enhancement. When it is successful, both people feel fulfilled. It takes the best from both, and multiplies it to achieve what neither could achieve on their own.  That exhilarating feeling of collaboration is not unusual; working together is integral to human beings. We are co-operating animals.

There is a good reason why people co-operate. For our ancestors, life without co-operation would be nasty, brutish and short, very short. “It takes a village to raise a child”, or at least a group of adults working together.  As well as raising families, both agriculture and industry depend entirely on collaboration.

Unfortunately, the stale and dangerous philosophy of ‘neoliberalism’ that has ruled politics and economics for several decades stresses individualism, doing it alone.  Margaret Thatcher famously argued there is no such thing as society. But that’s a self-interested lie or at least delusion, to pretend we need the rich, and our bosses, more than they need us.  In reality, our civilisation is massively social.

However, social does not always mean fair or sustainable. Genocide is a collaborative act.

Intelligent co-operation is defined here as co-operation towards mutual, and life-enhancing goals. In particular, whatever we do together, we are learning about ourselves.

Intelligent co-operation as defined by Theun Mares is how we discover who we are. Humans are poor at understanding themselves without the help of other people.  It’s through working with others and seeing ourselves reflected in them, both in what they feed back to us about ourselves and also how we see them doing what we do and can use that to understand how it works in us (the mirror principle).  We are not naturally particularly good at listening to our inner selves, but the world offers us millions of opportunities to see ourselves in others.  And it is so much easier to grasp why something is a good or bad approach when we critique it in other people.

Intelligent cooperation also has a particular structure. The way it works is this: someone has to offer a lead, both a vision of what we are aiming to achieve and a structure for how we can work together to achieve it. This is clearly scary stuff. The follower can just reject what you are offering. But you have little choice if there is something you want to achieve.

If the second person accepts that, at this time and in this context, they will follow your lead, you take some responsibility for their safety – not physical, but reassurance that if they bring you ideas you will listen to them. You do not promise always to act on them, of course, but to respect what they bring you.

To do intelligent co-operation requires these things:

1.       Someone with vision

2.       Someone who is willing to collaborate on that first person’s vision

3.       Acceptance by both that we depend on others who are bring us what we do not know ourselves

4.       Left as well as right side knowledge and tools; in other words, not always working in the known, the factual, the clear

5.       Inclusiveness, or the opposite of separateness – challenging our own ego, most of all (where ego is more or less how Buddhism defines it, as seeing ourselves as better or worse than others)

6.       Continual learning, which is the whole point

In practice, it may be that there isn’t always clarity about the specific aims, at the start, or complete trust – but there is willingness.

Why not a mutual direction? My experience is that we lead and follow at different times and for different purposes, and that it always takes someone to propose (like Pete, for example) and someone to accept; and sometimes this is a long-term relationship, and sometimes simply collaboration over a specific task. Often it is formally structured that way, with designated managers, project managers and clients. But it can also be mutually agreeing who is going to lead – and leading here doesn’t mean who has the power. Some people inspire; others of us are happy to be inspired. Neither is less or more vital to collaboration. I say this as someone who really enjoys, and is good at, being a ‘right-hand woman’. (For reasons that I’ll explore this might be better termed ‘left-hand’ woman or man.)

For me, intelligent co-operation is how we bring together our strengths, and acknowledge those things we are less good at, to build. To create something we really couldn’t do on our own, through contributing what we know and learning what we don’t.

Theun suggests this is a life or death matter. It may not be, for us, about not starving to death, or not being eaten by a tiger, but nevertheless our lives depend on it. Without intelligent co-operation we would muddle through, never understanding our potential or what matters to us. For one thing is clear: it is through other people that we know ourselves, and more than that it is through what we create together.

Intelligent co-operation requires openness to learn, to share. It requires trust – and in its own way is quite frightening. If we offer a lead, will anyone take it? If we take a lead from someone, will it lead to enhancement?

It follows that there are some things which will get in the way of intelligent co-operation.

·       There are habits that block learning and sharing, such as closed-mindedness, not listening, inflexibility, and bigotry.

·       There are ways of speaking that undermine the development of mutual trust, like belittling comments, reflexive negativity, or talking behind the other’s back.

·       ‘Bossiness’, on either part, is a common problem – an attempt, sometimes more habit than deliberate, to control the other person.

·       Lack of commitment, on either part, makes it very hard to feel safe (enough) and put effort into the relationship.

Most of all, we can sum up the biggest block as disrespect: not actually believing the other person is worth it. Or that we are worth it ourselves.

Respect and disrespect are complex. Some people feel the word respect has been misused as a tool by those who have more worldly power against those with less (think Downton Abbey, and ‘respecting your betters’).

Personally, I feel that if you are a manager, you have to earn respect; it doesn’t come automatically with the job title.  If you find yourself shouting at the people who work for you about how they need to respect you more, you have in many ways already failed. 

However, to work together intelligently and productively we do have to start with a basic belief that the other person has value. For that matter, we have to start with the belief that we ourselves have value.

If the role of the first person is to provide a vision and listen to the insights from the second, behaviour that doesn’t help includes anything that gets in the way of clarity. That includes capriciousness, vagueness, contradictory directions, hypocrisy (saying one thing and doing another). It also includes any belief or action that gets in the way of gaining from what is brought to you, like not listening, and indeed lack of imagination about other people’s perceptions.

Bullying – which I would define as misusing and even enjoying power over others – fails all of the above.

What behaviours from the second person get in the way?  If we separate out the most fundamental problem of all – that the second person does not want to follow, or doesn’t want to follow the first person specifically – the major issue is anything that undermines (and ‘under-mines’ is a wonderfully appropriate image for how it can feel).

Behaviour that undermines includes both passive and active resistance, in a spectrum from sullenness to sabotage. In management theory, providing a poor lead will bring out these behaviours in the followers: if you treat the people who work for you as inferior to you, don’t be surprised if they find ways to get back at you.

However, I am not really addressing poor managers that are imposed on us, but rather the more curious question of why we act to undermine even those we want to work with. You can observe this perhaps mostly dramatically in some marriages: why does one person belittle the other, when that can only bring about an increasing cycle of lack of affection and trust – ever less intelligent co-operation?

If you are looking for intelligent co-operation, what qualities would you look for in either person? You are not really seeking a ‘nice’ person; you want someone who is adventurous, not merely polite.  And I suspect that we may have all dear relatives and friends who we might not trust to work with in specific ways and specific areas.

-          Open

-          Good listener

-          Flexible

-          Committed

-          Affectionate

-          Direct

-          With integrity

-          Confident

These personal qualities may not quite be enough.  There’s a great concept of ‘partners in crime’ to describe two people backing each other up to something that ultimately won’t do either of them any good. In other words, ‘unintelligent co-operation’.

The best-selling leadership book From Good to Great talks about discovering that the most successful leaders (in terms of running companies that sustainably outperformed others in their sector) were not charismatic.  Instead, they were rather ‘humble’, in that they didn’t make a big splash of themselves or claim all the credit.  In other words, they were not overtly ego-driven, and they recognised the power of teamwork and other people’s contribution to success. It is possible, reading between the lines, to suspect some of them may have been power-hungry maniacs in other ways. But it certainly made the case, as far as it went, for collaboration rather than charisma.




Ralph Pettingill

Thanks @Ruth Wallsgrove this is a topic that is very important to me, in particular, ideas about humane leadership. A large part of my work has focussed on those obstacles that arise: as you ask
".. the more curious question of why we act to undermine even those we want to work with..."
The interactions you describe are very thoughtful/ rational: the behaviours that undermine, are driven by reactions based on feelings and grievance. This leads on to finding out what's behind emotion-based behaviour. I'm sure we can all think of occasions where this applies to us...all those times when I don't do what 'makes sense' but do something because I do or don't 'feel like it'. My experience in the world of work (as both a team member and a manager, as well as a trade union convener) is full of examples. A colleague once suggested that we look at our work diaries and notice which entries evoked 'heart sink' feelings... then explore those events, to find out what was behind them.
Another example: our prejudices and aversions. We unwittingly bring these into collaborative situations, even where we have high levels of commitment and enthusiasm. My view is that the emotional 'hair triggers' we all have, are frequently confusing to us. We often feel bad about them, don't understand them and prefer to avoid them. They often lurk in the places where we have 'blind spots' in our perspective. For our nearest and dearest, than can become glaringly evident.
My interest and work has been how to assist each other to uncover these painful limitations in thinking and awareness. Fundamentally this is based on understanding that we can create the conditions to do this work. We have some key ideas: that people can recover/ heal from/ make sense of hurtful and confusing experiences. That we can build trusting mutual relationships to do this. It involves lots of listening and encouragement. We've had success in understanding our own prejudices. An example: I've lead a workshop each year for social work students, where we look our ideas and feelings connected to race and identity, in particular the opportunity to notice what we think 'whiteness' means here in England.
Maybe I should write something detailed for Campfire; I had hope to run a 'Think shop' and the Campfire gathering, recently postponed.
Returning to your article, as well as bringing our thoughtful and intelligent selves into collaborative work, we also bring a set of confusions, socially supported 'blind spots' and prejudices , of which we have limited self awareness. All that muddled baggage contains all sorts of unresolved emotional trip wires and buttons. It is surrounded by poorly understood strong feelings, fears and rigidities. All this might not be that difficult apart from a few compounding problems- we have a history of being punished, criticised and otherwise put down or shut up. As young people, most of us learn the hard way that we're not supposed to have these foibles, and we often strive to keep them hidden. We're consequently uncomfortable when these issues surface or someone else comments about them- as well as being wonderful, we're also dragging around quite a messy muddle! I think there's a lot of evidence to show that the self defeating and confused things we do are usually based on these misapprehensions. The perfect recipe for conflict occurs when two or more parties all react emotively at the same time. It's not so bad if at least one person in the situation can maintain humane perspective. The above also leads us to defend our mistakes and to miss chances to learn from experience .
I've just noticed how much I've written. There are probably several pieces that I could develop some time. Thanks again for your prompt...


Ruth Wallsgrove

Many thanks Ralph, again. 'Heart sinks' is a great cue - and I so much agree that our own lack of self-awareness of why we do things is what makes intelligent co-operation so hard. I would love to start a discussion here about techniques and tips on working on our blind spots and foibles, and understanding what we really need so we don't undermine it. I am lucky to be in a working group - that is, a group that works - on this, with people across Europe, which was my inspiration for starting to explore IC through writing . Let's work together! love, Ruth x