Communication Currents

Me versus We: Communicating in Collaborations

February 1, 2011
Organizational Communication

In today’s complex, interdependent world collaboration is a key strategy for organizational success in every sector of society. Collaboration involves members from different organizations working together and sharing resources so they can solve problems and accomplish things they couldn't do on their own  But organizational collaboration is also complicated and often leads to more frustration than satisfaction. So how can people from different organizations collaboration more effectively? It’s all about communication.

Collaboration can be minefield of relational tension for everyone involved. At the same time, collaborators must communicate the needs of the organizations they are representing while considering the needs of others “at the table” and the goals of the collaboration overall. To participants this balancing act can feel like an “unnatural act between unwilling participants.”

We’ve been studying collaboration and communication for several years. In one of our studies we spoke with nonprofit professionals to learn more about their collaboration experiences. We found that communicating a “me” versus “we” approach can make all the difference. 


It is all about me
For many, it is easier to take a me-orientation towards collaboration. This smash-and-grab type of communication highlights the needs of the individual and what each person can get out of the collaboration. When your individual organization is struggling, it is hard to share resources with others. “When you get down to the nitty gritty, it’s ‘what am I going to give up and what are you going to get.’ My turf, and you don’t get to touch that.”

In the me-orientation members can ignore others and focus on steering the group towards the goals of one organization. In these instances, members may ignore the relationships created within the collaboration and bully others into a specific agenda. As one professional stated, “Instead of using communication to talk about [expectations] the nonprofit was just going to do it their way anyway.”

A second key to me-oriented communication has to do with claiming credit. If a structure is not communicated early on among collaborative members about how successes and failures are credited, there is a greater potential for me-oriented members to control the communication about certain events. One participant discussed her experience this way, “One nonprofit basically took over the collaboration. They hired the staff to take over and they got credit for it.”

So how do me-oriented members attempt to cope with issues that are not of personal interest or not in line with their own organization’s perspective? Many use silence. While silence implies the absence of communication, it is not powerless. Communicative silence can be seen as powerful in several important ways. First, silence can be used to express disagreement in the collaboration. Since one of the primary objectives of a collaboration is decision-making, keeping silent during a vote can prevent the group from achieving an agreeable decision for all members.

Obfuscation (to make obscure or unclear) is a second form of silence. Some organizations send participants to the collaboration who have little knowledge and even less decision-making power. The goal of this tactic is to send a person who may have eyes and ears in the collaboration, but must take all questions and decisions back to the home organization before a position or choice can be made. Both dissent and obfuscation can delay or even derail a certain goal from ever being accomplished.

Finally, me-oriented collaborative participants may just remove themselves from the collaboration if they don’t get what they want. They may evaluate what the demands are versus the outcomes and decide it is easier to leave the collaboration than work together. This lack of required participation can be problematic for both the organization withdrawing and those left in the collaboration. The withdrawing organization will not maintain a voice in a collaboration that may be addressing issues important to that organization. For the collaboration it can strip unique voices and views that enrich decision-making.


We the people
To create the potential for success, participants can take a we-orientation to their collaborative communication. This orientation attempts to balance the stakes of all members and organizations and create an environment with more equally distributed participation and power. From a we-orientation, the collaborative process is a group accomplishment wherein all members have equal stakes in the larger goals and the value of absolute agreement is often just as prized.

For a we-orientation to be instilled in the collaboration, several relational and structural components need to be in place. First, building a solid foundation of trust is essential, and for many a necessity for collaborating. “You bring people together to talk about communication, collaboration, and talk about knowing each other, eventually this leads to a culture of trust.” With high trust, collaborations can maintain a positive environment and working toward accomplishing their goals.

A second component necessary for a we-orientation is buy-in. To combat the silence of a me-oriented participant, collaborations should focus on the types of people at the table and what their roles should be. Part of this challenge is not only getting the “right” people there but also deciding when to stop inviting more or whether to close the boundaries of membership at all. Collaborations that are hesitant to draw firm lines around their membership or to define membership sometimes become a revolving door of attendance and participation in which each meeting represents a completely new mix of people at the table. “We have got some of our agencies who send a different person to every meeting. If you get a lot of that, you start over at every meeting.”

Structurally, we-oriented collaborations need to think about leadership and mission. The leader needs to guide the collaboration while monitoring members’ personal interests so that they do not conflict with or replace the collaboration’s mission. “Issues of power need to be addressed. They need to be said out loud. Often times they are not.” The leader needs to address how influence and power are acted upon in the collaboration to help bring everyone together. Likewise, by limiting leaders’ power and trying to attain neutral leadership, collaborative members can avoid potential accountability and leadership tensions.

Some collaborations use mission statements as a communicative tool to help manage individual responsibility. By creating a document or statement that all can support, the mission statement gives the members a way they can evaluate and justify their participation in the collaboration. The mission allows members to “share a vision” and find a space in that the members can operate as collaborative partners, and also as representatives of an outside organization.

By creating an organizational form that allows participants to accomplish goals greater than the scope of their individual organizations, the collaboration can become more than just a decision-making body but a network of friends on whom they could rely. The we-orientation communicates a collaborative process that forms alternative uses, beyond the mission of the group.  People realize that they are not alone in the field and have support from others.

“If I am collaborating with someone who already has an expertise and it is one I need, I don’t need to go out and learn that expertise if I can join with her…It is being able to appreciate other people’s expertise.”

Collaborating with other organizations is essential, but it won’t be easy.  Finding ways to balance “me” versus “we” approaches to communication can help participants work together more successfully.

About the author (s)

Matthew G. Isbell

Merrimack College

Assistant Professor

Matt Koschmann

University of Colorado at Boulder

Assistant Professor

Laurie Lewis

Rutgers University

Associate Professor