NVC In The Workplace

NVC In The Workplace


For five weeks now, Miki Kashtan of Bay Area NVC, one of the leading lights of the Nonviolent Communication movement, has been publishing (via email) an excellent mini-series about nonviolent communication and collaboration in the workplace.

I’ve been finding her words to be full of widom, compassion, and highly actionable advice. For some inexplicable reason, her posts have not been published on the web. I repeat them here, verbatim, in the hope you find them useful and in the hope that Bay Area NVC doesn’t take offence.

Postscript: I’ve added Week 6 to round out the series.


Week1: What’s stopping you from bringing NVC to work?

If NVC seems impossible to use in your workplace, I want to tell you that it isn’t – it just functions somewhat differently in the workplace than in personal relationships. Over the next five weeks, you’ll be getting a mini-course on making NVC work at work.

What’s stopping you from bringing NVC to work?

I’ve often heard from people that NVC just doesn’t work in the workplace, that it doesn’t have a chance in that world. Have you had doubts about this yourself? If so, what is it that comes to mind specifically – a painful experience? Something you tried that didn’t work? Or an image you have about what would happen if you did try?

When I ask people about this, it usually boils down to one of a few common concerns:

  • There’s no time to do the kind of dialogue that NVC requires.
  • NVC only works between equals.
  • People in the workplace aren’t interested in feelings and needs.

As we are preparing to launch the Center for Efficient Collaboration, I want to share with you some of the key lessons I’ve learned in years of working with organizations. By focusing on a few core principles and practices, I’ve been able to live, apply, and teach NVC in more and more organizations – everything from large manufacturing firms to charitable foundations. And one common response I hear from clients is that what they learn in the process is so practical!

It’s not just that NVC can work at work; applying NVC principles can actually change the whole dynamic of a team or organization, making it both more collaborative and more efficient. My hope is that by shifting how you understand and use NVC, you, too, will find that it’s just as powerful at work as in your personal life.

The one thing to know about workplace NVC

Bringing NVC to work starts to make more sense when you understand how NVC functions within an organization.

NVC’s main function in the workplace is to make it easier to sustain collaboration towards a shared purpose.

This is a different function from supporting our relationships and emotional well-being, and definitely requires a different kind of focus and different choices in how to think, speak, and act.

In the coming five weeks, you’ll get weekly emails from me that explore different ways of supporting collaboration with NVC. For starters, here are my responses to the concerns raised above:

  • There’s no time to do the kind of dialogue that NVC requires.

The workplace isn’t designed for prioritizing connection and relationship. To collaborate for a shared purpose, we don’t have to work out what our deepest needs are and how we can meet them together; all that’s required is to have enough dialogue to know what’s important to all players in relation to the purpose at hand, and to find a practical solution that works for all of them. This usually consumes far less energy than intimate, personal conversations with family and friends.

  • NVC only works between equals.

There are certainly very different dynamics at play when there are power differences between people. For example, people with less power may be afraid to say “no” for fear of reprisals. In fact, empowering yourself and others to say “no” is so important that I am dedicating an entire installment of this course to it. As you’ll see, specific skills are required to transcend power differences and create willing rather than coerced collaboration.

  • People in the workplace aren’t interested in feelings and needs.

My own experience tells me something subtly different. I take seriously the core assumption that NVC rests on: that all human beings have the same basic needs. We have those needs both in and out of the workplace. When our needs are met, we will have certain feelings, and when our needs are not met, we will have certain other feelings – in and out of the workplace.

What’s different is the willingness to talk about the feelings and needs, not whether or not they are there. The culture of most workplaces is not welcoming of intimacy, vulnerability, and expression of need. Why? Because they are seen as inconsistent with the focus on producing goods and services.

What, then, can you do? You can learn to discern feelings and needs – both your own and others’ – and choose how to engage verbally with others based on what will contribute to the shared purpose within the cultural context of your workplace. This, again, takes learning additional skills which I share in the next few weeks of this course.

Stay tuned for future instalments:

  • Week 2: Stepping into leadership wherever you are in the organization
  • Week 3: How communication changes when you focus on what’s needed for the purpose at hand
  • Week 4: Why personal skills don’t automatically translate to functioning well within teams – and what to do about it
  • Week 5: Collaborating across power differences, both upwards and downwards
  • Week 6: How to change behavior throughout organizations by setting up systems that support collaboration

Do you have specific situations within your workplace that you would like support with? Please hit “reply” and send them to us, so they may fertilize both this course and future blog posts beyond. You can also bring your workplace dilemmas to the free group coaching call that I’m hosting at the Center for Efficient Collaboration launch.



Week Two: Embracing Responsibility for the Whole

When my late sister Inbal was in her twenties and unsure about what she wanted to do with her life, she did a stint of several months of temping. Since she didn’t have any describable skill, she qualified only for short-term, low-level administrative positions. Still, in several places where she worked, they asked for her specifically, and a few places offered her permanent jobs. Although they didn’t specify why, we knew. Instead of doing the bare minimum necessary to complete the assigned task and keeping her distance, Inbal actively looked for things to do. She noticed what was needed, even in offices she had never been to before, and gave her whole self to the place, even if only for one day.

Inbal’s attitude in those early days exemplifies to me one of the key ways you can bring the principles of collaboration to your workplace. Temp positions, in general, have a high level of alienation built into them. Yet even in that kind of job, it’s possible to go beyond focusing on your narrow self-interest so you can attend to the largest pool of needs possible: your own, those of the people around you, and the shared purpose of the organization or team.

This, to me, is an act of leadership. Leadership, the way I define it, is not a position – it’s an intention. It is the act of embracing responsibility for the whole.

Leadership means embracing responsibility for the whole and attending to a shared purpose.

What does this look like in practice?

  • It means noticing when you tell yourself that something is not your job, and choosing to do a task because you know what it’s contributing to within the team or organization.
  • It means taking the the risk of asking for the support that you need in order to contribute your gifts in full, while ensuring that you work within your own physical and emotional limits.
  • It means offering feedback to people with more power when you see ways that the team or organization could be even better at achieving its purpose.
  • It means engaging with others’ perspectives and needs to aim for a co-creative path, rather than always relying on your own wisdom alone.

This is not about being good; it’s not something you can “should” yourself into doing. I have found, for myself and others, that it only really works when it involves a true shift in attitude and orientation. Unless you genuinely step outside the frame of only doing “your job” and embrace everything as “yours,” you are likely to be too scared or too resentful to take any such steps wholeheartedly.

For myself, I have found it intrinsically rewarding to focus on serving the whole – even when I end up taking actions that don’t get me exactly what I want. Why? Because it allows me to live as I want instead of being at the mercy of what comes from the outside. Even when a long-term contract I once had was terminated because I offered more coaching to the CEO than was truly wanted, I left that site with a sense of wholeness, because I valued the risks that I took on behalf of supporting that organization to align with its stated purpose and values. Having embraced this approach for years now, I find that relying on internal measures to guide my actions, such as meaning, integrity, and a sense of contribution to something larger than myself, makes life so much more engaging.

This is not a path without challenge. For one thing, we are very habituated, from infancy, to orient our sense of mattering toward approval from others. Whether it’s about satisfying expectations or being appreciated for innovation, we look outward to know that our contribution and needs matter. This habit, if you are in a position with little formal authority, can leave you not trusting your own contribution and reluctant to speak up for fear of retribution.

Even if you are in a position of authority, choosing to embrace the whole is not easy. In addition to negotiating the approval of those with more formal power than you have, other dynamics enter into play. Including the needs and perspectives of others with less formal power – another key aspect of stewarding the whole – is unfamiliar, and rarely engaged with in fullness. Because of mistrust in the ability or willingness of others to take responsibility, attempts at inclusion are often seen as futile, inefficient, or both.

As we proceed with this email course over the next few weeks, I hope you will learn a thing or two about the internal orientation to leadership and how to translate it into concrete practices that support the larger whole and its purpose. For now, I want to leave you with a few questions to reflect on as you go through the upcoming days in your workplace.

  1. What is your position within the organization in which you work? How much formal authority do you have in your position?
  2. Review in your mind a typical day of work. How do you decide what to do and how to do it? What would be different if your choices were informed by caring for the whole? (Note: your answer is likely to be different in its focus depending on your position within the organization.)
  3. Do you feel empowered to carry out your work responsibilities in a way that is informed by caring for the whole?
    • If yes, what would it take for you to put this into action and let this orientation guide all your choices more often?
    • If not, what is preventing you from feeling empowered? Put differently, what needs of yours might you be attending to by choosing, even if without awareness, to act in the ways that you do?

I would love it if some of you took the risk of sharing your responses to these questions by replying to this message. I am so eager for that kind of fertilization of my thinking as I write the rest of this course and future posts. You can also bring your thoughts and questions to the free group coaching call I’m hosting at the launch of  the Center for Efficient Collaboration.



Week Three: Just Enough Connection for the Purpose at Hand

About ten years ago I was at a sociocracy training with others from the local NVC community, and I watched our group trip over a common assumption in the NVC world. The workshop was very challenging for many in the group, and unrest had been building up; I no longer remember the reasons, but I do remember the moment when someone became incredibly agitated. This person – I don’t recall who it was, let’s call her Nancy – spoke up repeatedly whenever the trainer tried to move forward, making it impossible to continue with the training. Being a crowd of NVC practitioners, a couple of us offered Nancy empathy. Within a remarkably short time given the level of upset, she settled emotionally. The relief in the room was palpable to me, and we were turning our attention back to the trainer, ready to proceed.

Then suddenly someone else said: “Wait a minute, I don’t believe we gave Nancy enough empathy, and I don’t think she is done.”

I watched in dismay as she turned to Nancy and re-opened the issue that had just been closed. The moment of peace and focus was lost for the next fifteen minutes.

Why we put empathy first

I’ve come back to that moment many times since, because it’s a classic example of something that many people struggle with when applying NVC tools outside the context of NVC workshops. Simply put, while the principles of NVC apply across the board, the form they take varies based on context and purpose. In this moment with Nancy, there was an NVC principle that didn’t get adapted to the situation we were in.

The principle in this case is the core intention of prioritizing connection. Here’s the language that my sister Inbal and I chose in our rendition of the key assumptions and intentions of NVC:

Prioritizing connection: We aim to focus on connecting open-heartedly with everyone’s needs instead of seeking immediate and potentially compromised solutions, especially in challenging situations.

As you can probably see, this is written as an intention, without specific directions about how to do it in the specific context that you find yourself in. It is aimed as an antidote to deeply ingrained habits: most of us, by default, find ourselves arguing opinions and negotiating solutions without ever connecting at the level of what the opinions or solutions mean to each person; without creating commonality on that level; and without the shared goodwill that makes the engagement worthwhile in the first place.

Whether you’re talking across a conference table or a kitchen table, reinstating a commitment to connection does wonders – as long as it’s coupled with a clear focus on the purpose at hand.

Nancy’s crisis happened during a workshop where experiencing the healing that comes from deep empathy wasn’t the main goal. While hearing the fullness of her pain would make sense in an NVC practice group, in this context it stopped us from refocusing on the reason we were all there.

By prioritizing connection, we escape the tendency to argue and negotiate without awareness of what we share in common. By coupling this with a focus on the purpose of our work, we put connection in service of the whole group or organization.

Here’s what it looks like to apply this principle when collaborating toward a shared purpose:

  • Taking a moment to reflect the essence of what you hear from another person before responding to them. The practice of recognizing and naming needs is key to your success here.
  • Finding a way to speak the deepest relevant truth about you with the most care for the potential effect on the other person. The practice here is converting any blame, judgment, strong opinions, or preferred solutions into a clear expression of what is true for you one level deeper.
  • Making sure you know what you want to hear from another person in addition to what you want to say, so you can ask a question to support the organic flow of a conversation. The practice of formulating clear, specific, doable requests, framed in positive language, will enhance your capacity for dialogue.
  • Choosing to offer feedback to people on the effect of their actions – on you, on others, and on the team – in a way that is designed to support your collective ability to achieve your shared purpose. The practice of providing clear, concrete observations is absolutely key here because it allows you to deliver meaningful feedback that isn’t a veiled form of criticism.

If you are familiar with NVC, you will no doubt see that all of the above are core elements of what people learn in NVC workshops and practice groups that are designed for personal use. So what’s the difference between prioritizing connection in an NVC classroom and prioritizing connection at work?

It’s not just about connection

In the workplace there is a purpose other than just connecting. Wonderful and nourishing as connection is, it’s not the primary reason for taking part in collaboration designed to achieve results. At work, we come together to produce and deliver something – a product or a service – that serves the particular purpose of the organization we are part of.

One of the key differences, then, is that the purpose of connection in the workplace is not to feel good, to heal from the past, or to create a bond of love. Rather, the purpose of the connection is to shift away from habitual win/lose thinking, competition, and alienation, and towards creating enough common understanding and trust to collaborate – thereby increasing your overall capacity to achieve your shared purpose.

Another key difference is about use of language. The language that works well in the context of a communication workshop or your personal life often doesn’t translate well into a workplace environment. Sometimes even the words “feeling” or “need” are frowned upon. If your first efforts to introduce NVC to your workplace didn’t work, this may be why. See if you can find ways of expressing fully what you want without using language that can be difficult for others. Just replacing “need” with “want,” for example, can go a long way to make your speech more acceptable without compromising any truth or connection.

We are looking for the sweet spot where connection supports what we’re here to accomplish, rather than interfering with it.

As you puzzle over this – just the right amount of connection – the following questions might help you gain some insight about where that sweet spot is for you.

  1. Describe a moment in your work life in which you argued with someone about how to do something. What would you do differently in that moment, having read this segment of our course?
  2. Consider someone’s actions that you believe are getting in the way of your team accomplishing its purpose effectively. If you were going to give feedback to this person, how would you frame it? What would you describe as the action? What would you say about why this matters? What would you offer as a way to address it?
  3. Think of a difficult conversation you may have been avoiding. How could you deliver the difficult message while taking full responsibility for your experience, without putting blame or judgment on the other person?
  4. For any of the above situations, what might you ask of the other person to help move the conversation and your collaboration forward?

Once again, I would love it if you took the risk of hitting “reply” and sharing your responses to these questions. I am so eager for that kind of fertilization of my thinking as I write the rest of this course and future posts. You can also bring your thoughts and questions to the free group coaching call I’m hosting at the launch of the Center for Efficient Collaboration.



Week Four: Committing to Solutions that Work for All

It looked like the setup for a grueling meeting. I was sitting with five executives who were working out how to support a CEO transition. I asked them to state what they each wanted to see as the outcome. All were speaking from within their own positions and expressing their preferences. What they said couldn’t have been more divergent.

They looked at each other, partly helpless, partly amused. I could see this was not a first.

Then I asked them to take some time in silence to reflect on all the responses they had heard, and to come up with a proposal that would attend to the entirety of what they heard, in service of the entire group and the organization. I waited until they all were ready with an answer before hearing from any of them, so that they could truly form their own opinion of this new angle.

When I asked them to share their new proposals, all of us were in awe. Instead of five wildly different suggestions, we now had five overlapping solutions. Within two minutes they settled the one remaining difference, and all agreed on the path forward.

If alignment can happen that quickly, then why do meetings usually take so long and achieve so little?

Sadly, my conclusion is that most people, in most meetings, either tune out and just wait for the meeting to be over, or they are there solely to advocate for their own positions, irrespective of the shared purpose or what others want. Add to this some basic lack of skill – few people know how to participate in meetings effectively, or how to run them in a way that closes loops, attends to all that matters, and maintains and increases trust – and you see why it doesn’t work

So what happened at the meeting that converged so swiftly? Essentially, the executives present were able, with my facilitation, to shift from advocating for their own positions to attending to the whole. Although they were all in positions of authority within their company, they weren’t doing it before I directed them to think in that way.

Transcending an individual perspective

What’s surprising to me about this story is not the speed at which they coalesced. I’ve seen it happen enough that I have come to expect it when the necessary ingredients are in place.

Rather, I remain astonished at how often people see situations only through the lens of their own individual perspective. Even for people in positions of executive leadership, how will this decision affect me? typically becomes a greater concern than how it might affect the mission of the organization or the functioning of a team.

I have found that the capacity to think beyond our own individual needs is almost invariably there, ready to be invoked with remarkable ease – and it is rarely accessed spontaneously. Put differently: I need to explicitly invite people to look for a solution that works for all. Then, like the five executives above, they usually do it right away, even though they hadn’t thought of it on their own. It’s a muscle that doesn’t often get exercised in our society, because for generations we have been focusing only on the individual benefit.

It gets a little trickier, too, because a group or an organization cannot speak for itself in the way that humans do. The only information we have about what supports the larger purpose is the combination of everyone’s sense of what it is.

Clearly, people can easily have disagreements about what serves the shared purpose, and they need to work those out. In my experience, focusing on shared purpose and what will work for everyone enables us to resolve differences much more efficiently. It’s remarkable how much time and trouble this saves, compared with discussions where each person in the group is looking after their own benefit.

If we focus on supporting the shared purpose and seeking solutions that work for everyone, we can resolve differences much more efficiently.

To apply this principle within a group, think about three key aspects:

  • Identifying and articulating the shared purpose – both the overall purpose of the organization or the team, and the purpose of any particular decision.
  • Focusing on what’s important to each of the individuals involved, and how that relates to the shared purpose.
  • Committing to find solutions that attend to as much of what’s important to everyone as possible, moving beyond either/or.

For small decisions, like the five executives identifying who would participate in their transition process, the middle point often remains implicit. In contrast, for large groups dealing with complex and contentious questions – like the lawmakers and advocates I’ve been working with in the Minnesota state legislature, who were deeply polarized around child custody policy – stating what matters to each individual becomes essential to recovering connection and finding common ground. (There’s much more to say about this: you can go deeper into it via this newly published case study and this recent blog post.)

After a while, as a group works with these principles, there is less and less need for explicit naming of what’s important to people, because of the trust they develop. Still, whenever tension or conflict arises and the group needs a compass to guide them through the storm, they can fall back on the more methodical process.

What makes this process so efficient?

The focus on a shared purpose and on solutions that work for everyone brings attention to what the group has in common and what brings them together. When a group operates on a high degree of trust – which is what this way of working together generates and sustains over time – the urge to protect and defend a particular position diminishes. Instead of fighting turf wars, people focus more of their attention on solving the problem.

If you want to see efficient collaboration become the norm for your group or team, here are some of the important conditions to put in place:

  • Make it a priority to articulate the shared purpose that binds you together.
  • Nurture every member’s experience of mattering. The most effective way to do this is to engage with whatever someone brings forth in discussions, distilling from it what’s truly important to them, and including it in the whole picture that the group is attending to.
  • Have systems in place to attend to conflict when it arises and to provide ongoing feedback, so that resentments and disappointments don’t fester underground. (I cover more about systems in the final week of this course.)
  • Encourage people to distinguish between their preferred outcome and what they are wholeheartedly willing to accept even if it’s not their preference.

You may notice that none of the above are individual skills or values. Rather, they are mechanisms operating on the group level; agreements and procedures that support the entire group in functioning well. This difference is key. In the absence of understanding that a group operates on a different level, many people expect that just putting together people who are committed to the same vision and values, and who have some individual communication skills, will be enough to create a well-functioning group. It isn’t.

The following questions might help you develop a proposal to a team or group you are part of about how to work together more collaboratively and efficiently:

  1. Describe a moment in your work life in which you were part of a group aiming to reach a collaborative decision, and you were stuck. What would you do differently in that moment, having read this segment of our course?
  2. Does your group or team have a shared purpose? If so, is it known by everyone? Does everyone truly resonate with it? If not, it may be a purpose, and yet it’s not actually shared. If yes, does everyone know and remember the specifics of the purpose? Do individuals use the purpose to guide their own individual decisions? If not, what would you recommend the group do, in light of this segment of the course?
  3. When there are disagreements within your group or team, do you have mechanisms in place for incorporating what’s important to each person and providing an experience of mattering? If not, what do you now see as options for doing this?
  4. Does your group have mechanisms for handling conflict and providing ongoing feedback to each other? If not, stay tuned for the final week of this course, which focuses on systems.

Once again, I would love it if you took the risk of hitting “reply” and sharing your responses to these questions. I am so eager for that kind of fertilization of my thinking as I write the rest of this course and future posts. You can also bring your thoughts and questions to the free group coaching call I’m hosting at the launch of the Center for Efficient Collaboration.



Week Five: Collaborating across Power Differences

My late colleague Julie Greene was my student for a few years before we co-founded BayNVC, and in that time I was witness to an extraordinary transformation in her relationship with her boss. Julie was getting quite a bit of satisfaction from her work as an intake counselor at a methadone clinic. Yet she suffered in relation to her supervisor, whom she experienced as micromanaging her.

One day, an internal shift catapulted her out of the powerlessness she had been feeling. It came when she tried adopting an empathic attitude towards her boss as a way of humanizing the relationship – and it dawned on her that underneath the behavior that annoyed her so much was her boss’s commitment to high-quality service. This was a commitment that Julie shared, and her attitude completely changed.

Once she understood what was important to her boss, two things happened. First, it was no longer so odious to give her boss information. Second, and more significantly, their conversations changed as Julie positioned herself as her boss’s supporter. The first changes she made were within herself, as she kept looking for what truly mattered to her boss, regardless of what the boss said or did. After a while, she felt confident enough to offer her boss empathy and understanding when they talked, and she added offers of support when she sensed that her boss was open to it.

Within a few months of consistent attention to the relationship, Julie was her supervisor’s primary confidante and a source of ease and relief: the one person whose work the boss didn’t have to check. The relationship became collaborative, and continued in this vein until Julie was ready to transition into doing her NVC work full time.

Easier said than done, you might be thinking. Indeed, true collaboration across power differences is rare, because habit, fear, and mistrust all get in the way. In my experience, the mistrust usually goes both ways and is fed by both habits and fears.

For millennia now, some (few) people have been far ahead of most others in terms of their access to resources – in other words, they have had far more power. Within the workplace context, those with more power have the option of directly limiting others’ access, as well as penalizing them when their actions don’t meet the needs of those in power. Every employee knows this, and it serves to create mistrust and fear.

When some people have more access to resources than others, collaboration is at risk. Those with power can choose to limit others’ access or punish actions they don’t like, and the resulting mistrust and fear interfere with the willingness to look for solutions that work for all.

Meanwhile, those in power are habituated to believe that they can only make things happen through control, meaning that everything is done in the way they believe is best. They often lack trust that others will get their work done without coercion and incentives. This is the kind of atmosphere that makes collaboration nearly impossible.

Collaborating with someone who has more power

What Julie did, in her persistence with supporting her boss, was nothing short of subverting this familiar set of dynamics. By approaching her boss as a full person who needs support, she opened the door to an entirely different relationship between them – and she stopped waiting for her boss to change first.

If you are in Julie’s position – struggling with someone above you in the hierarchy – you can follow her example in these ways:

  • As in any collaboration, remember to aim for a solution that works for you, for the person in power, for the team, and for everyone else involved. To get there, you need to base solutions on complete understanding of what’s important to everyone and link it to the shared purpose of the organization. (You may want to review Week 4 of this course for more on this.)
  • If you have a disagreement with the person in power, find a way to express it that ties it to your best understanding of what they are aiming for. Propose another solution that you believe will work for them.
  • Attend to the quality of your relationship with them, especially if they are your boss. Don’t focus only on the specific problem you want to solve. If you create enough trust and alliance, they may want to listen.
  • Position yourself as their ally. This starts with seeing and engaging with their full humanity, continues with naming and aiming for the shared purpose, and ends with focusing on offering support as ally rather than challenging the person in power.
  • As much as possible, do any inner work necessary to make choices with integrity and care, even if you are afraid of negative consequences.

Collaborating from a position of power

What if you are the one with power? In that case, the biggest internal challenge to collaboration is usually an attachment to having work be done a certain way, coupled with a habit of making things happen by using power. It takes some stretching and learning to recognize, in practice and not only in theory, that it’s extremely costly to get someone to do what you want when their sole motivation is that you can make their life miserable if they don’t.

So that’s the internal challenge. The biggest external challenge for bosses is that the people with less power are likely to say “yes” without engaging their full wisdom, going along with what you want even if it doesn’t make sense to them. This has happened in my own organization, BayNVC, where we are all committed to empowerment, truth, and collaboration. Even so, I know of many times, many more than I would wish for, when people went along with a proposal of mine because I made it, not because they thought it through and decided it worked for them. (Sneak preview: next week you will find out how we were finally able to transform this pattern.)

As a result, creating a collaborative team when you are in a position of leadership takes ongoing vigilance and practice, both within you and in interaction with others. Here are some practices you might find helpful:

  • Engage in any practice that helps you open yourself to others’ wisdom and to what matters to them.
  • Look for ways to encourage people to bring their full contribution and participate in decisions, design, and project definition.
  • If you know that certain people are habituated to say “yes,” invite them explicitly to poke holes in your thinking, and express gratitude when they do. Do this, and solicit input and feedback, even when you are confident of your solution.
  • When people present input, acknowledge the risk they took in speaking up, listen with care to whatever they say, and take it seriously. This doesn’t in any way mean you must agree with it. Rather, even when you disagree or go a different route, close the loop as much as possible: tell the person how their input affected your thinking, and share your reasons for choosing a different path.

If it seems to you that gathering all these contributions would slow you down, consider how much energy you expend in motivating people to work on timetables and conditions they didn’t choose, doing things that don’t make sense to them, and having an overall sense of not mattering. Think about the mistakes and complex fallout that result from not consulting with implementers, and the grind of absorbing hostile energy, unkept agreements, and even active sabotage of the decisions you make. By investing slightly more time in the short run to nurture collaboration, you avoid these huge long-term resource drains while adding a host of benefits. Collaboration increases buy-in and trust, since people give more of themselves when they participate. And it incorporates more people’s wisdom, allowing solutions to emerge through synergy between stakeholders. Because these solutions attend to more variables, they tend to be much more robust.

This week, instead of offering specific questions for reflection, I invite you to take a situation in which you were challenged to collaborate across a power difference, and walk your way through it applying the specific points and practices I outlined above. You might choose a situation in which you had either more or less power than someone else, or you might look at both sides by thinking about two different scenarios.

As always, I would love it if you took the risk of sharing your responses to these questions by replying to this email. You can also bring your thoughts and questions to the free group coaching call I’m hosting at the launch of the Center for Efficient Collaboration.



Week 6: Creating Systems that Support Collaboration

Last week I mentioned my struggles, as the co-founder of BayNVC, to establish a fully collaborative relationship within our team. If you’ve read the previous installments of this email course, you may remember that collaboration from a position of power entails supporting people to say “no” and to express divergent opinions. As a founder and the organization’s main income generator, this certainly applies to me. Over the years, more and more people on staff were learning to say “no” to me, which was a relief because then I could truly trust their “yes”.

Still, something kept happening that concerned me: people would seek my approval when making decisions. I didn’t find a way for staff to shift to just asking me for input instead of giving me the final word, which ultimately leaves the power in my hands rather than with all of us.

New system, new behavior

The pattern started shifting when we all acquainted ourselves with Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations. Laloux has researched several organizations that have instituted self-managing teams instead of a chain of command, and his book documents how they do it. In particular, he describes a radical decision-making process that he calls the “advice process.” In this approach, anyone can make any decision, provided they first ask the advice of those affected and those with relevant expertise. The advice is not binding; the person is free to make a decision against the advice – and receive feedback about their choice over time.

At BayNVC, we adopted a modified version in which anyone asked for advice can request a collaborative group decision instead. Writing this up in a Google doc was all it took to replace our ongoing individual conversations with a decision-making system.

The result? The long-awaited full empowerment and collaboration finally materialized.

When our operations coordinator Adriana wanted to buy new software, for example, instead of asking the bookkeeper and me if she was approved to purchase it, she told us the price and the ways this program would support her, and then asked a question that changes everything. Instead of the traditional “Are you OK for me to buy this?”, she asked “Do you have any concerns?”, which gives her information to make her own decision rather than leaving that power with the bookkeeper and with me. Soon after, Anna, who is working on the new website for the Center for Efficient Collaboration (stay tuned! It’s coming in a few weeks), emailed all of us with her proposal for who would lead which aspects of the project, and who would be asked for advice.

Change the default system settings

So why is it that we needed a system in place before things would shift?

It’s the same reason the Kibbutz movement in Israel never fulfilled its aspiration of equality between men and women, even though it succeeded at economic equality. When a group neglects to consciously articulate and explicitly establish one of its organizational systems, that system defaults to the prevailing ways of being. The kibbutzim translated their commitment to economic equality into institutions and policies, while gender equality remained only a conversation. Similarly, BayNVC staff talked about collaboration for a long time without creating a collaborative system. In its absence, the norms of power that we all imbibed from early on continued operating.

Whenever a group does not explicitly articulate a new system, they unconsciously inherit and implement the prevailing ways of being.

Organizations can’t function at their full potential until they clearly define their foundational systems. You can think of these systems as sets of agreements around key questions. Some of the most essential are:

  • Shared purpose: Why are we doing what we’re doing? How is awareness of purpose affecting our actions? A clear purpose owned by all can support more engagement, focus, and effective use of resources.
  • Decision-making: Who makes which decisions, with input from whom, and communicating about them to whom? What processes do they use to make the decisions? Delineating this can dramatically increase efficiency and engagement.
  • Information flow: How does information flow throughout the organization – and particularly from those in leadership positions to others, and vice versa? Simply put, information is to an organization like blood is to a human body. Vision, purpose, and direction might flow outward from the center, while ideas, wishes, and feedback flow inward from everywhere.
  • Feedback loops: Who gives feedback to whom, when, and for what specific purpose? How do they provide the feedback? Imagine an organization with a feedback system designed for learning, rather than as one more subtle mechanism for reward and punishment, and you can see why it’s vital to look at feedback.
  • Conflict resolution: Who can someone go to when there is conflict? What methods are used to resolve it? When engaged with skillfully, every conflict becomes an opportunity to fine-tune systems and relationships. In the absence of this conscious choice, conflict resolution reverts to punitive methods.
  • Resource allocation: How does the organization distribute its resources – financial, human, and otherwise? Because decisions about budgets and pay so powerfully affect organizational functioning, clarity and transparency in this area are particularly important.
  • Values: What values guide choices within the organization? What can be done to better embody those values in practice, through systems, procedures, policies, and the entire organizational structure? The more alignment with values, the more enthusiasm and commitment within the workforce.

Attention to the above systems helps any organization, even the strictest command-and-control hierarchy. Creating a fully collaborative organization requires an extra step of embedding the commitment to collaboration. It means designing the systems so that people routinely engage with one another and share decision-making power as they attend to as many needs as possible while keeping their focus on the shared purpose. Just like aligning with values, this usually means examining every part of the operation to find and transform all vestiges of authority-based functioning. Given where we are in our societal evolution, this is likely to be an ongoing process, with rewards every step of the way.

For your reflection this week, I invite you to consider:

  1. For your organization or your team, see how many of the questions above you can answer. Any time you don’t know the answer, this is a part of the organization that isn’t functioning optimally. When systems are solidly in place, everyone within the organization knows how they work.
  2. How would these systems need to change in order to become fully collaborative?

This is the final week of this course, and there’s still far more to say. This is why we are launching the Center for Efficient Collaboration. Its brand new website is scheduled to launch on October 1, and there is still time to sign up for the FREE coaching call I’m hosting at the launch. If you’ve already signed up, look for an email with call-in details next week.


– Bob

1 comment
  1. i am so glad you posted these because i get similar questions after/before i run NVC workshops for my colleagues. very helpful to be able to refer to some of the answers she’s provided.

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