Collaboration: The Bad and the Ugly

Writing a book, developing a game, or hosting a website can be lots of fun, but also very stressful, particularly when you’re up against deadlines and things get hectic at work and home. If you’re collaborating with someone else, that stress level is precisely double. Even if you’re on the best of terms going into it, it’s easy to get angry over seemingly frivolous things, especially with workload, quality, and respect issues.

“Partnerships with friends or relatives never work.” “The best way to lose a friend is to room with them.” Sound familiar? Everyone likes the feel-good talk about working together and teamwork, but let’s face it–it ain’t all smiles and roses. Most successful relationships have a clear “chain of command,” with one person being active and the other passive. It’s much, much rarer to find people who can truly work well together as equals, particularly if they have any kind of history. That’s why you’re often better off working with total strangers than your own relatives or friends.

If you’re planning to do a big project with someone else, make it all of your expectations as clear as possible at the beginning. You might think you know the person well, but people don’t always think clearly once they’re under the gun–up against deadlines, dealing with family, work, etc. Egos have a way of rearing their ugly heads at the worst possible moment. If you disagree or clash over things when you’re in the planning phases, don’t expect things to somehow get easier as you go along. This is particularly true if you’re collaborating with someone who feels superior in some way, or is unaccustomed to having his or her decisions get questioned.

My advice to anyone thinking about collaborating on a project is to ask: Is it worth the risk? In the best case, you’ll work well together, enjoy the work more, and end up with something better than you could have done on your own. However, you may also find yourself in a minefield of dramas and egos.┬áIn my experience, I’ve frequently found the best way to keep going under these circumstances is just to keep your head down and make a rush for the finish line. But is that really something you want to keep doing, again and again? I think not!

Here’s a little test for you to try the next time you want to collaborate with someone. Choose an innocuous topic that doesn’t directly affect the project, like where to go for lunch. Does the person seem open to suggestions, or just shoot them all down–and you end up going exactly where that person wanted to go all along? Or perhaps the person opens with, “That doesn’t matter to me, whatever is fine,” emphatically stating that they have nothing at stake in the decision. That’s another warning sign–they’re letting you know that this time, it’s okay for you to make the decision. But what happens when it does matter? What you’re looking for instead is a real discussion and equitable agreement, perhaps something like, “Let’s flip a coin,” or “you choose this time, I’ll choose next time.”

There are many people out there who are good at giving the impression of being open and fair-minded, while deep down, they nurture fragile egos that must be appeased in order to be happy. Avoid these people.



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