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A Challenge for Collaborators: Acceptance
Business Journal

A Challenge for Collaborators: Acceptance

Workplace partnerships succeed only when both people accept each other for exactly who they are

by Rodd Wagner and Gale Muller

One fact about partnerships is so uncomfortable that your first reaction probably is to deny it: You form partnerships fastest and easiest with people most like yourself. Deep-seated biases make you more trusting of those who look most like you, who think like you, or with whom you have the most in common, whether you're from the same town, attended the same school, are fans of the same team, or mirror each other on more controversial factors such as race, age, religion, or sex.

Humans are tribal creatures, constantly drawing boundaries between friends and foes.

As much as people like to think of themselves as equal-opportunity collaborators, the research demonstrates they are not, at least at first. Researchers in the 1920s and 1930s began documenting what even casual observers realize: schoolchildren become friends and form playgroups most readily with those who share their demographic characteristics. The same kind of self-segregation can be seen on a college campus or in the cafeteria of any large corporation. A preference for working with those of the same "race and ethnicity creates the strongest divides in our personal environments, with age, religion, education, occupation, and gender following in roughly that order," states one study.

I trust me

When nearly 100 pairs of twins were asked by researchers to play a game of trust with each other, identical twins, genetic copies of each other, collaborated much better than fraternal twins, who are no more genetically alike than any other pair of brothers or sisters. One Canadian researcher tricked her subjects by digitally morphing their own photos with those of strangers and presenting the results as the faces of people with whom the volunteer was playing a game of trust. People trusted the "self-morphs" more than photos created from the images of two strangers. (Another study even found that when people adopt a purebred puppy, they tend to choose dogs that look like themselves.)

Sociologists call the degree of similarity between people "social distance." Its consequences for collaboration are often more important than the physical distance separating two counterparts. Humans are tribal creatures, constantly drawing boundaries - sometimes prejudicial boundaries - between friends and foes.

This creates a problem, not only because it restricts your collaborative field, but because it makes you less likely to create strong ties with those who would bring something you lack to the partnership. Many of the potential collaborators you need most are those who will be, because of their differences from you, most difficult to learn to accept. You don't need an identical twin as much as you need an opposite, a relative stranger who shares the common mission and the same sense of fair play, but whose approach to the challenge may seem quite foreign.


Measuring acceptance

The most successful partnerships bridge this gap. Effective allies most strongly agree with three statements regarding acceptance that emerged from Gallup's structured interviews:

  • We focus on each other's strengths, not weaknesses.
  • We accept each other as we are and don't try to change each other.
  • We are understanding of each other when one of us makes mistakes.

More than 8 in 10 (83%) of those in a good partnership agree with the second statement, but only 16% in poor working relationships do so. The most effective pairs are also far more likely to agree with the other two statements. As with the other elements of collaboration, only those who strongly agree to all three statements can be said to have an excellent partnership.

Differences between partners can easily spark antagonism. One man shared his frustrations in dealing with a fellow parishioner in his late teens when they were teamed up to prepare the music for a Sunday morning worship service. "Practice was a nightmare," he said. "I think we both felt the other was attacking when pointing out something that needed to be changed. There was also a generation gap. I was 'old and outdated' in his eyes, and I struggled with some of the off-the-wall ideas he had. We ended up fighting over whether or not to play a certain chord somewhere and what order to play the songs in. Everything said was met with defensiveness and said with a semi-joking, passive-aggressive attitude. I haven't worked with this person since, and I would avoid doing so in the future."

Pitfalls of egocentrism

Even if the social distance between you and your partner is small, incorporating his or her personality into your preferred way of working can be difficult. Mutual irritation is common in partnerships, particularly in the early stages. There is a natural propensity to believe you are normal and that the other person, to the degree she differs from you, is a bit off.

It's impossible to work effectively with someone if you spend too much energy finding fault with your comrade.

Psychologists call it egocentrism. We tend to forget or disregard information that we disagree with, but we remember information that reinforces our own views. We are inclined to believe positive news about those we like and negative information about those we don't. We suffer the hubris of "egocentric infallibility," thinking what we believe must be true because we would not believe something unless it were true. And we are hypocrites, believing or professing one thing and doing another, sometimes not even noticing the contradiction in ourselves while having a finely honed sense for spotting it in others.

"Egocentric thinking emerges from our innate human tendency to see the world from a narrow, self-serving perspective," wrote one pair of experts on human thinking. "We naturally think of the world in terms of how it can serve us. Our instinct is to continually operate within the world, to manipulate situations and people, in accordance with our selfish interests."

Egocentrism kills partnerships. It's impossible to work effectively with someone if you spend too much energy finding fault with your comrade because you are blind to your own failings. Partnerships require both people to accommodate each other's foibles. "The cockpit can be a small place, especially when laboring with someone who has a different philosophical bent or focus on details," said one captain for a major American airline. "As we sometimes say to friends when flying with those free spirits, 'We are on Day 12 of a five-day trip.'"

Warren Murphy, author of dozens of mysteries and one of the scriptwriters for the film Lethal Weapon 2, had three words of advice for authors who are thinking of teaming up with another writer: "Don't. Don't. Don't."

"You think a puppy's trouble? Wait until you get somebody who goes angsting around, all aquiver with outraged indignation over the deletion of a comma," he warned. "One of the real problems with partnering is all the time you waste trying not to hurt your partner's feelings, and in the end, it won't do you a bit of good because your partner knows you are a crass, unfeeling egomaniac interested only in yourself. And wait until you are forced to spend time with someone who hates you because, walking into a room together, six people know your name and only five in the room know your partner's. Clearly you have been up to something criminous at his expense."

"And the writing itself," he continues. "Two months into the partnership and you will wonder how you ever managed to get yourself saddled with a logically challenged half-wit who is functionally illiterate to boot. Your partner, meanwhile, thinks exactly the same thing but blames it on your Alzheimer's and sends you a box of Depends on your birthday . . . just in case."

Appreciating someone else's strengths

If you can't find a way to accept your counterpart's personality, the parishioner, the pilot, and Murphy are right. The Christmas program will be torture, the flights too long, and coauthoring the book a huge chore. You can easily justify finding fault with your counterpart because every one of his or her strengths can be upended and seen as a weakness. A colleague who excels in generating ideas will of course be less practical, because thinking outside the box starts with ignoring the box. Someone who takes command can be viewed as bossy. A partner who carefully assesses the risks can be tagged as "chicken."

Just as a hammer makes a poor saw and pliers make a poor paintbrush, any strength can be faulted for its failings, and any person can be criticized for what she does not do well. To the degree that you insist on taking the negative view of your collaborator's personality, you will destroy the partnership.

Strong partnerships don't just fall into place when one great person happens upon another whose personality is ideal. Every collaboration is a combination of two imperfect creatures. One of the greatest challenges of any partnership is learning how to work in close quarters with another over-assuming, fallible, emotionally driven, partially informed, idiosyncratic being moving up and down on the tides of life just like you. The most successful partners come to accept the rough edges of their colleagues. The best collaborators understand they are no more going to get a perfect partner than they are going to be one, and they make accommodations for each other's human failings.

This element of partnership does not require you to tolerate every kind of behavior. Certain traits or habits are out of bounds. No collaborator should feel an obligation to endure abuse, sloth, dishonesty, selfishness, or a partner taking sole credit for joint accomplishments.

Beyond the universally intolerable acts, you must decide what quirks you personally cannot accept. Many people cannot abide a collaborator with an oversized ego, while some can. The tendency some people have for working right up until a deadline causes some partners great stress, while others find it invigorating.

Active acceptance is associated with higher levels of happiness. In a partnership, it is epitomized by focusing on your partner's strengths.

Be careful about making your list of unacceptable traits too long. As the inventory of behaviors you won't tolerate grows, it begins to say less about the frustrating counterparts with whom you've been paired and more about you being a difficult partner. Having too many conditions can rule out all your potential collaborators. If a particular attribute of your counterpart is not demonstrably wrong, it bears at least an attempt at accommodating.

Salt Lake Tribune reporter Michael C. Lewis saw the acceptance grow between Utah Jazz players John Stockton and Karl Malone. "Karl has a very fragile ego," said Lewis. "I think he really very much loved being the guy, being Karl, and being the center of attention. But at the same time, he could manufacture the weirdest ways to be offended or mad. A lot of times they manifested themselves in really maddening ways like a new contract demand or a distracting rant in the press."

Meanwhile, Stockton was at the other extreme, legendary for keeping his emotions to himself. "Karl's almost adolescent sense of self-esteem and egotism, I think, drove John nuts," the journalist speculated. And yet, Stockton never voiced his irritation publicly. "I never heard him say an ill word about him. I got the feeling that John approached it as, 'You know, that's just Karl.' You kind of have to cope with it for the sake of having such a good player around you."

Accepting what you can't change

Collaborators look for ways to handle aspects of their opposites they would prefer to change. One is denial, pretending the problem does not exist. Ignoring the issue, according to psychological research, is a poor strategy that has shown itself to be "clearly related to higher levels of stress and impaired psychological well-being." If your partner does something that bothers you, you need to recognize it before you can resolve it.

Another tactic is called "resigning acceptance." This attitude, although it recognizes the problem, also includes a feeling of cynicism or powerlessness in dealing with the issue. "Typical," say people who use this method. "These things always happen to me." Or they may say something such as, "All my practice was for nothing. I did not need to do it at all."

"Resigning acceptance," wrote one group of researchers, "means abandoning outward-directed actions; however, this behavior is combined with negative expectations about the future and a loss of hope." This kind of approach is much like denial, leading to bitterness, decreased mental health, and less control over your actions.

The best way to deal with a frustrating situation is called "active acceptance," neither denying the situation nor surrendering to it. "Active acceptance means acknowledging a negative, difficult situation and dealing with it in a constructive way," wrote the researchers. "The individual dispenses with fruitless attempts to control what is neither controllable nor changeable." Active acceptance is associated with higher levels of happiness and sense of control. In a partnership, it is epitomized by focusing on your partner's strengths rather than her weaknesses, accepting her as she is, and being understanding when she errs. In the best collaborations, partners come to appreciate what they once found aggravating.

A similar phenomenon occurs with social distance. As consistently as one set of experiments shows that demographic differences between players make them less trusting of each other in the early rounds, another set of experiments just as consistently shows that the more two counterparts get to know each other, the better they coordinate their moves.

The silver lining of human tribal boundaries is that they are fluid. Spend enough time working shoulder to shoulder with one of "them," and she will become one of "us." We can adopt into our tribe people who are quite different from us. Familiarity eventually trumps dissimilarity. "People come to the table with prejudices and stereotypes," one pair of professors observed. "However, after meeting someone and gaining more information, these prejudices are often revised or washed away."

Even Murphy, the curmudgeonly mystery writer who argued against writing with someone else, formed a strong partnership by ignoring his own advice. He and coauthor Richard Ben Sapir learned to deal with each other. One rewrote the other's work without telling him. One wrecked the other's car. They wrangled over money. They passed manuscripts back and forth on opposing sleep cycles. "We wrote and sold a lot of books, but partnership was different for us and, for the record, none of the things I just complained about [regarding partnerships] had anything to do with me and Richard Ben Sapir."

"He had only one speed: overdrive," wrote Murphy. "He never saved anything for later; he gave you his best work every day. Drunk, sober, happy, sad - none of it mattered. The pages flew from his typewriter." Ultimately, Murphy was compelled by his own experience to concede that perhaps a collaboration could succeed. Sapir, said the skeptic of partnerships, was "the greatest partner anyone could have."

The Eight Elements of a Powerful Partnership

Great partnerships don't just happen. Whether your joint mission is to build a successful company, coach a team, improve the government, do something spectacular for a charity, or any other worthy goal, all successful partnerships share the same crucial ingredients. When all these elements combine, partnerships become not just effective in accomplishing the mission, but also personally rewarding, sometimes intensely so.

Complementary Strengths: Everyone has weaknesses and blind spots that create obstacles to reaching a goal. One of the most powerful reasons for teaming up is working with someone who is strong where you are weak, and vice versa. Individuals are not well-rounded, but pairs can be.

A Common Mission: When a partnership fails, the root cause is often that the two people were pursuing separate agendas. When partners want the same thing badly enough, they will make the personal sacrifices necessary to see it through.

Fairness: Humans have an instinctive need for fairness. Because the need for fairness runs deep, it is an essential quality of a strong partnership.

Trust: Working with someone means taking risks. You are not likely to contribute your best work unless you trust that your partner will do his or her best. Without trust, it's easier to work alone.

Acceptance: We see the world through our own set of lenses. Whenever two disparate personalities come together, there is bound to be a certain friction from their differences. This can be a recipe for conflict unless both learn to accept the idiosyncrasies of the other.

Forgiveness: People are imperfect. They make mistakes. They sometimes do the wrong thing. Without forgiveness, the natural revenge motives that stem from friend-or-foe instincts will overpower all the reasons to continue a partnership, and it will dissolve.

Communicating: In the early stages of a partnership, communicating helps to prevent misunderstandings; later in the relationship, a continuous flow of information makes the work more efficient by keeping the two people synchronized.

Unselfishness: In the best working relationships, the natural concern for your own welfare transforms into gratification in seeing your comrade succeed. Those who have reached this level say such collaborations become among the most fulfilling aspects of their lives.


Rodd Wagner and Gale Muller recently completed five years of research identifying and analyzing the crucial dimensions of a successful partnership. Their book, Power of 2: How to Make the Most of Your Partnerships at Work and in Life, is the product of that research.

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