Working with Collaboration & Conflict | JCP News

Naming the Elephant: Working with Collaboration & Conflict

Think adopting collaborative working techniques will put an end to conflict in your organisation? Think again...

Many organisations are working under the mistaken believe that collaboration is the easy route. They are in in for a shock.

The recent JCP survey of over 100 industry managers revealed a frequent but unnecessary frustration. How to overcome the perception that collaboration is "getting on with people" or is about "saying yes to everything". There is a mistaken belief among our industry colleagues that successful collaboration should eliminate conflict.

This is not only wrong, it can actually undermine collaborative efforts. The best collaborations always have an element of conflict. When people are truly committed to working together, rather than just mouthing the politically correct sound bites, then there are bound to be disagreements. Disagreements mean that people care about what’s happening and aren’t afraid to voice their opinions. And since collaborations involve people, there will always be different perspectives. Good collaboration invites these differences into the room.

Collaborations come unstuck when the parties are only able to work on those areas where they agree. The problem is that the areas of agreement are always smaller then the full scope of the work. The result is that any disagreements become the unmentionable 'elephants in the room'. Not surprisingly, when the room gets filled with elephants, collaboration soon gets squeezed out.

Our industry survey asked what the hardest part of making collaboration work in your organisation is? Answers were insightful but included classics such as showing team members that "collaboration is not saying yes to everything" and "getting people to recognise that part of collaborative working is the creation of a relationship strong enough to genuinely hold each other to account for commitments made."

The solution to both these issues is simple to describe and more difficult to put into practice. It means having the courage and skill to name the elephants - without destroying the working relationships.

The strength of any collaboration is best measured by the level of openness and honesty brought to the table. The aim of these conversations is to bring the reality of all parties into the room. Only then can really informed decisions get made. Elephants need recognition, not denial.

Collaboration depends on the capacity to disagree constructively. In practice, this means being sincerely interested in how and why others see things differently. This isn’t always easy, largely because we usually believe our view is right - and different opinions can feel like a threat or attack. And before you know it, we’re in a battle rather than a conversation.

Fortunately, collaborative conflict skills can be learned. Principles like honesty, benevolence and courage are at the heart of all real dialogues. We can also get much better at saying what we need from each other, without feeling attacked or defensive.

Like any real learning, these skills take time and practice. Failing to learn means we risk watching the collaboration founder and sink on the first disagreement that breaks the surface. We need to remember that while "Conflict is inevitable, combat is optional". To be able to deal with the inevitable, without going under, is key to all long-term collaborative efforts.

For More Information Contact:

JCP Press Office on: 01252 711025
JCP Website:

Notes to Editor:

Michael Jacobs is an associate of JCP and an accredited mediator. JCP has over 20 years’ experience working with organisations at all levels, and at all stages of collaborative working, and to help create and shape alliances. JCP works to bring best practices and expertise to those progressive organisations who are looking to embark on the collaborative journey and see the benefits.

Download a PDF version

Partnerships & Memberships

Major Projects Association
Crown Commercial Service Supplier
Institute of Civil Engineers