Ask this question and you’ll hear many valid reasons why collaboration is difficult.

Some say it’s the silos we work in—breaking down those concrete walls can be tough.

Others say it’s our culture, which gears us towards competiveness.

Seth Starner points out that collaboration is about establishing trust in relationships, but competiveness is about the opposite; it’s about getting the most or giving the least.

Still others say it’s plain old lack of time. Working through different perspectives is time consuming.

Defensiveness: A Roadblock to Collaboration

But a factor that I’d never considered is defensiveness.

According to Jim Tamm, being defensive is the single greatest inhibitor to true collaboration.

In Cultivating Collaboration: Don’t Be So Defensive!, Tamm explores the emotional side of collaboration, where were driven by our vulnerabilities.

Defensiveness protects us from what we fear, including feelings of insignificance or incompetence.

When fears make us feel vulnerable, we feel threatened, and we defend ourselves. Our primeval instincts come into play. And what happens when we become defensive? We become terrible problem solvers, and our defensiveness invites everyone else to be defensive.

Signs of Defensiveness

Tamm suggests we need to learn to recognize our outward signs of defensiveness. Let them be your early warning system.

Common ones are:

  • Withdrawing into deadly silence
  • Playing “poor me”
  • All-or-nothing thinking
  • Wanting to be right
  • Blaming or shaming others
  • Feeling confused
  • High charge of energy
  • Catastrophising everything
  • Wanting the last word
  • Obsessive thinking
  • Flooding with information to prove a point

When Your Early Warning System Tips You Off

  1. Acknowledge you’re being defensive – You first need to notice it before you can take action.
  2. Slow down (your physiology) – For example, take a walk around the building, get some fresh air, if you’re trapped in meeting, take a few deep breaths.
  3. Check negative self-talk – If you’re engaging in negative self-talk try to turn it into something more positive and less toxic for you.
  4. Create an action step and practice it so it becomes automatic – This should be directly related to your sign of defensiveness. For example, if your warning sign is flooding with information to prove a point, your action step is to be quiet for 10 or 15 seconds. If your warning sign is a high charge of energy, your action step is to take few deep breaths or visualize a relaxing scene.

Defensiveness is a major roadblock to resolving conflict and building collaboration. Reducing your defensiveness will increase your ability to solve problems and work collaboratively.

Silos often can’t be penetrated, our competitive drive persists, time continues to elude us — all factors we have little control over. But we can take action to reduce our defensiveness.

I’ve provided just a snapshot of Tamm’s TED talk. Check it out — it’s informative and engaging, and you don’t want to miss his story about chickens. Apparently they have a lot to teach us about collaboration.