The pyramid of collaborative language 

Flat hierarchies, redefined leadership models and wicked problems: business partnerships face several challenges when working together. What’s needed is a new language of collaboration. 



Is it possible that today we are operating in a new economy, one in which collaboration is inevitable?

We believe there are three trends that foster the momentum leading to collaboration among organisations from for-profit, not-profit, and government sectors. 

First, we are interconnected through wicked problems. These are problems that demand innovation and can morph into related problems. Such is the case with environmental problems like water shortages: how will the agricultural, food or beverage industries be sustainable without addressing water issues? Consider educational problems that can have devastating effects on our workforce and organisational bottom lines: how can organisations be competitive without prepared workers? Wicked problems demand creative thinking from the best and brightest from all sectors and stakeholders of a working society. 

Adding to the momentum of collaboration are the internal needs of organisations to innovate and capture ideas and energy that might be previously slowed in traditional hierarchies. Organisational structures are in the midst of change. Leadership is being redefined as having the ability to work with a range of stakeholders in and outside of a single organisation. Cutting edge organisations are adopting flattened hierarchies and collaborative mindsets to harness their talent. 

Which leads to the third contributor towards collaboration in and amongst organisations – a ready workforce. Younger generations of workers may be the most collaborative-ready workers yet. They are comfortable with technologies that ease the difficulties of collaborating across organisations and indeed continents. They are known to have had close relationships with parents and other authorities in their life, cultivating a worldview of flattened power relationships. In other words, they eschew hierarchies anyway, and hierarchies are problematic for collaboration. Finally, they thrive on connection, which is at the heart of collaborating. 

Diverse partners and collaboration hazards 

Collaborating has a different set of assumptions for which some sectors of the workforce are not well prepared. Collaboration hinges on a diversity of perspectives. In other words, if you already have the answer to the problem, you don’t need a collaboration, you need a campaign. Go sell it. But wicked problems have many possible solutions that will not be uncovered in the absence of out-of-the-box thinking.

They also tend to be related to hosts of ethical issues central to social and corporate responsibility. Working with diverse sectors and viewpoints is extremely challenging, often time consuming, but also necessary in order to have a holistic understanding of the problem and to avoid unintended consequences and, frankly, sometimes bad public relations. 

“Younger generations of workers may be the most collaborative-ready workers yet.” 

In addition to needing diverse perspectives at the table, you can assume that collaboration across organisations has a very different governance structure than most organisations. Some of the most successful collaborations have developed social capital as the strongest governing feature among partners. Social capital means that collaborating partners are largely governed by relationships that are built on trust and reciprocity. Partners behave in accordance with the trust, willingness and cooperation they have built with one another.

Given that governance structures are so heavily dependent on intangibles such as trust and reciprocity, it is easy to see why the third assumption of collaboration, flat hierarchy, is so fragile. Power differentials have historically been and continue to be the chief downfall of inter-organisational collaboration. In flattened hierarchical arrangements relationships are best formed in an egalitarian and ethical context. Operating in a mode of shared decision-making does not come natural to many of us.

Simply said, our default communication practices and languages are too often competitive, adversarial, and dependent on the power of our positions. These modes can backfire in a situation where equality is necessary to glean the contributions of diverse others.

Learning through listening 

Having spent a combined three decades working on, thinking about and observing the behaviour of collaborating partners, we propose a language of collaboration that addresses the above assumptions. We call this the language of collaborative praxis and it is practiced by principled collaborative leaders. Though competitive and protective modes of communication may end up productive in the short run, collaboration in the long run demands successful relationships as well as solutions. We are not proposing you must be friends with diverse partners. But we are convinced that creativity and innovation are rooted in the respect you cultivate with partners as you seek workable solutions. 

The language of collaborative praxis can be thought of as a pyramid with practices and processes that build on each other. The foundational layers offer a strong base of communication practice for the later layers. At the base of collaborative communication is dialogue. Communication and dialogue are not synonymous; the process of dialogue is as a conscious and intentional act. In dialogue, people communicating (and actively listening – an important part of communication we forget sometimes) are trying to understand the different perspectives each partner brings to the problem.

Whereas we often listen to others, and when we disagree, default into ways to counter the argument, as partners in dialogue we need to be curious listeners at times and storytellers other times. In dialogue we are actively trying to move beyond just tolerating the others’ ideas, to a space where we can appreciate others’ perspectives, while acknowledging our own. 

With dialogue as our foundation for collaborative communication, collaborative leaders begin to unearth what people want from their interactions – to have their interests met. In collaborative partnerships we tend to begin by discussing what we want to do or get done. This early focus on the fix or solution can get collaborations off track or prematurely working on one person’s preferred solution before getting to the root of why everyone is participating and what potential exists among stakeholders.

Your interests in working on this topic are the drivers for action and create a broader discussion about the problem or reason you are collaborating. When we work from people’s interest it opens numerous roads for solutions later in the process. 

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, the next layer of collaborative communication is conflict – a normal and anticipated part of collaborating. In many cases conflict is the reason to come together in the first place, and is the engine for collaborative problem solving. So, it is important to embrace conflict as the origin of possibility. When conflict goes awry, we eschew the trust and reciprocity we have developed with our partners and begin to default back into a defensive communication position where we protect ourselves, rather than continuing to stay open and curious listeners. In order to stay open and engaged in productive conflict, we need to practice gracious contestation.

Gracious contestation encourages us to challenge ideas, argue over them, and invite dissent from others, but also reminds us that the way we can go about disagreement does not need to be harmful to others. By practicing grace, we cultivate the respect and trust that encourages us to disagree without damaging one another. Think of gracious contestation as celebrating a hard-fought battle that makes everyone stronger, not one that leaves winners and losers. 

Embracing consensus to find solutions 

Emerging from conflict and disagreement, stakeholders can now embrace consensus as a collaborative communication practice that leads to collective decision making. Often in decision-making, we default to some form of voting. But, in collaboration, voting encourages a majority and silences the minority voice – a voice that must be accounted for to create collaborative decisions. Instead of asking people if we all agree, or looking for nods to see if a unanimous decision has been made (a process often confused with consensus), collaborative consensus strives to make decisions only when the partners can claim that there is no opposition to the proposal or idea.

From this perspective, it is not as much “do we all agree?”, but rather, are there still areas of disagreement that have been left unattended? In creating consensus decisions, collaborative leaders encourage dissent and differing viewpoints in the process so that the group can discuss and work through them. This space for dissent is where creativity, group cohesion and inclusion can occur. 

Finally, the language of collaboration focuses on solutions and how actions and vision reflect the collective identity of the larger group at work. Solutions can be generated in many ways; brainstorming and mapping exercises are very common techniques for cultivating action ideas. Some groups have engaged in the “appreciative inquiry” process, where group members create joint solutions based on positive assessments about what the group has done successfully in the past, and embrace those successes as a road map for future accomplishment.

This pyramid of collaborative language is not meant to be a linear prescription but rather a guide to action emphasising the importance of dialogue and interest-based talk. Your collaborative partners may routinely vacillate between unearthing interests, conflict, decision-making, and solutions. As long as you respect the trust and reciprocity underlying the collaborative process, you can create change that is better than any one individual can do by themselves, and that is the kind of change we need now.

Executive summary

  • Wicked problems, the innovation race and a ready workforce are driving momentum for cross-sector collaborations. 
  • Communication that promotes the egalitarian and ethical nature of collaboration is needed to avoid damaging fragile flat hierarchies. 
  • Dialogue forms the foundation of the pyramid of collaborative language, which builds to solutions through communication layers of interests, conflict and consensus. 

Renee Guarriello Heath

Renee Guarriello Heath is a senior Lecturer at University of Hampshire. She is a scholar, writer, and lecturer in the area of organisational communication. She specialises in collaboration, dialogue, and intergenerational conflict around work-life balance. Dr. Heath’s work has been featured numerous leading journals. Her new book Interorganisational Collaboration (with Matt Isbell) articulates the ethics and communication skills needed to collaborate in organisational partnerships across industries.

Matthew Isbell

Matthew Isbell is a professor at Boise State University. His research interests are in collaboration, nonprofit organisations, and health program implementation. As an applied scholar, Dr. Isbell works with many at-risk populations around the topics of nutrition and infant development. He has worked with the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) programme in both Texas and New Hampshire. His work has been published in many top journals. He is the co-author of Interorganisational Collaboration: Complexity, Ethics, and Communication. Dr. Isbell teaches classes on non-profit organisations, inter-organisational collaboration and organisational communication.