We all benefit from healthy collaboration and conflict resolution. In this article, I discuss two of my favorite models for collaboration: trust and negotiation. A trust orientation is ideal for teamwork but is often fragile in a corporate business setting. I describe the reasons for this and advocate for a negotiation-first mindset carefully infused with trust whenever possible.
Effective collaboration is key to accomplishing great things. It drives teams and individuals alike. It’s of primary interest to business leaders because of retention issues and high competitiveness in the market. It is also of interest to individual contributors who want to have fulfilling experiences, staying engaged and creative.
There are many perspectives on all of this as evidenced by the literature on managing difficult conversations (Bolman & Gallos, 2016; Patterson et al, 2012; Stone, Patton, & Heen, 2000). So it would be helpful to have a shared framework to draw from when thinking about our work together.
In this article, I look at two frameworks for collaboration in a corporate setting with a special focus on my industry (corporate tech). I argue that negotiation is a general-purpose baseline approach that can be super-charged with elements of trust under certain conditions. I also argue that trust is not a viable option for a baseline collaboration style. I discuss the many reasons for this, some of which have to do with corporate culture and others with the nature of trust itself.
There are two things to keep in mind as we deep dive on collaboration.
Collaboration style is a cultural artifact. It's helpful to think of it as woven into the fabric of the group’s culture (see this article for an overview). Said culture is partly emergent (the sum of group members’ perspectives), partly instilled by formal leadership, and partly imbued by the overarching organization. As a result, many assumptions driving behaviors lie outside of group members’ awareness, making introspection challenging.
A group’s collaboration style is blended. In any team meeting, there are always multiple conversations happening at the same time. The style that the team leader uses with group members is different from how two other members interact with each other offline. And so it isn’t accurate to say that there is just one style that the entire group follows. It’s situational and individual, with largely unspoken norms around which styles take precedence when.
Some groups have high trust. They prioritize psychological safety, maintain clear goals as well as standards for achieving those goals, and ensure that all members' contributions are meaningful and impactful. Research suggests that these teams are the highest-performing (Dumpeti, 2023). Other groups constitute low-trust environments where members do not feel safe to bring their full selves. In these teams, the focus is on operationalizing members’ work together with less regard for interpersonal process. Assuming a trust-based style in this setting leaves one feeling hurt, used, and empty-handed.
How about corporate tech in particular? In this environment, we often observe tenuous trust (TalentLMS, 2021; Parker & Horowitz, 2022; BlueBeyond Consulting, 2021; Beanstead, 2018). There are many reasons for this, some of which I detailed in a previous article on the role of empathy in this culture. The gist is that corporate tech culture often promotes engineer-politicians into people management roles according to “business need” with less importance given to their emotional intelligence, humility, communication skills, etc. Once in those positions, they can damage trust in a multitude of predictable ways and often struggle to rebuild it.
If a trust-based approach to collaboration is unreliable, what else is there? To answer that question, we look to other low-trust environments for inspiration: political debate, international diplomacy, and legal dispute. In these settings, one might employ negotiators, mediators, social workers, and the like. They act as a neutral party specialized in facilitating different kinds of conflict within an assumed code of ethics.
In corporate tech, social-emotional antecedents of trust (e.g. awareness, empathy, humility) are de-emphasized such that we can’t count on the work of counselors. We also can’t rely on coaches or mediators except for in special cases because of HR cost minimization concerns and “masculine” norms around “solving your own problems”.
Working with a management consultant/executive coach is a luxury bestowed on a select few in the management structure. These are the people whose superiors have decided are worth investing in. Meanwhile, asking a direct superior for help with trust-related concerns can be interpreted in this culture as a sign of weakness or lack of managerial skill. Subordinates are expected to bring solutions, not problems.
There seems to be only one general-purpose option for withstanding the challenges of collaboration in this organizational climate: a negotiation perspective.
I will describe two frameworks for collaboration (trust and negotiation) and lay out how we can combine them for maximum impact. The exposition of these ideas is intentionally high-level so that they can be broadly applied. If it all feels too abstract, think back to your most memorable experiences working in a team. Consider how the trust and negotiation perspectives applied there.
“Trust builds the bridge between the business need for results and the human need for connection.”
- Reina & Reina, 2015, p. 17
I’ve come to appreciate Dennis and Michelle Reina’s model for trust. It’s sometimes referred to as the “Reina trust model” (Reina & Reina, 2015) and has three components: Trust of Capability, Trust of Character, and Trust of Communication.
Trust of Character is all about being consistent, reliable, managing expectations, and expressing interest in others’ needs. Trust of Communication has more to do with honesty, giving and receiving feedback, confidentiality, speaking with good intentions, and information-sharing. And Trust of Capability centers on honoring others’ contributions and giving them autonomy.
In their book, the authors describe high-trust environments as those in which people feel safe to admit mistakes, ask for what they need, learn, share ideas, and so on. It’s an environment characterized by psychological safety, in other words. They also describe the myriad and often subtle ways in which trust is broken and how to repair it, from acknowledging events to reframing to letting go and moving on.
They go into a lot of detail about what’s behind one’s capacity for trust of self and others. It's that capacity that influences your perceptions, which influence your behavior, which builds or breaks trust in your relationships. The more you give people the benefit of the doubt, the more trust you can earn from them. There are a lot more take-aways in this model than I can capture in a few paragraphs. So if you're intruiged, consider reading the book.
The Reina trust model and the practices it implies all sound wonderful. It’s tremendously helpful in some one-on-one relationships, particularly with a life partner and close friends. But where the model breaks down is in its application to corporate tech. Here’s why.
To be able to maintain a culture of trust, group members have to be self-aware and other-aware, be comfortable operating by intuition in ambiguous social circumstances, and have a solid understanding of human connection (including the emotional component of communication). These are attributes and skills that engineer-politicians are not primarily known for. Instead, they’re known for things like political maneuvering (including information-siloing), an overpowering desire to win (even when it’s dysfunctional), and rigid thinking about people and procedures.
We have a stark contrast between what drives the average tech leader and what is necessary to cultivate trust. The result is that many employees end up feeling undermined and don't have access to procedures for addressing it. The systems of trust in this environment become broken over time and stay that way, leading many to abandon psychological safety as it is outlined in the Reina model. They instead look to other philosophies to feel grounded. That’s where the negotiation framework comes to the rescue.
Several excellent books have been written on how negotiation works (Ury, 1993; Lewicki, Saunders, & Barry, 2021). It starts with two or more parties coming together to discuss a conflict or an opportunity for collaboration. The parties identify each other’s interests and incrementally exchange concessions to create value. This process of “expanding the pie” is called integrative negotiation and enables everyone to claim greater value for themselves in the long run. If the pie is fixed, the game is zero-sum. Parties claim value for themselves through distributive bargaining.
It’s the focus on exploring potential exchanges that makes negotiation resilient to trust-deficiency. You need only trust the process, not the other party. The bar is much lower here when it comes to psychologically safe human connection or emotional intelligence compared to what’s required in a trust model.
The negotiation framework is fairly prescriptive and structured, making it well-suited to analytical minds. It also fits well with the transactional nature of corporate life, which emphasizes power exchanges and compliance behaviors. I highly recommend that everyone reads at least one of the classic books on the topic or take a class on it. It will transform your worldview.
We’ve established that trust is empowering but fragile and that a negotiation perspective fits well within corporate tech culture. What does all of this imply about an effective strategy for resolving conflict and pursuing collaboration? Here are a few thoughts on it.
1. We must see trust as merely a nice-to-have
We have to see trust as a nice-to-have rather than a must-have. There are some scenarios where trust is functional. Work that is one-on-one or in small groups is more likely to be capable of stable, trust-based collaboration. Larger groups have more stakeholders and so are more likely to involve what Adam Grant refers to as “takers” (Grant, 2014). These are people who primarily seek to claim value for themselves in a typical exchange. Other effects such as social loafing also take hold (Ingham et al, 1974), reducing Capability Trust. In this setting, negotiation-based collaboration is the functional option.
2. We should focus on stakeholders’ interests
Because a negotiation mindset is the go-to strategy, it pays off to spend time understanding others’ interests as objectively as possible. The negotiation literature is full of tips for how to do this from asking curious, open-ended questions to doing favors or proposing exchanges that subtly interrogate the other party’s priorities. This, coupled with an understanding of how power flows through the hierarchy we are embedded in, positions us well for both creating and claiming value.
3. We should evaluate stakeholders’ capacities for trust
We know that trust-based collaboration, when it’s feasible, is more effective than that based on negotiation alone. To benefit from opportunities for trust, we have to evaluate others’ capacities for it. That means probing their communication skills, empathy, emotional intelligence, motivations, honesty, integrity, etc. On the flipside, we also want to look out for contraindications such as narcissism, cruelty, moral relativism, and so forth. If we determine that trust-based collaboration is not possible with a colleague, we can exclusively apply a negotiation mindset to our work with them. That is unfortunate but not ultimately an impediment to a strategic mind.
Thank you for reading! We've covered a lot. I hope this article gave you a new perspective and perhaps some relief knowing that trust is not a must-have in the workplace. You can work with others effectively even in the trust-deficient conditions typical of a corporate environment. All you really need is a process for negotiation-based collaboration. Here you work to understand each other’s interests and create value through mutual exchanges.
When trust is functional, you can lean into it to amplify the value that you create with others. Knowing when it is and isn’t a viable option will help you to stay sane and get the most out of your work with everyone. I wish you well in calibrating your trust radar. Collaborate away!
Beanstead, S. (2018). Top Reasons Employees Don’t Trust Their Managers Revealed. Breath HR. https://www.breathehr.com/en-gb/blog/topic/employee-engagement/top-reasons-employees-dont-trust-their-managers-revealed
BlueBeyond Consulting. (2021). 72% of Tech Workers May Quit Their Jobs. Fixing Organizational Cultures Can Help Them Stay Put. BlueBeyond Consulting. https://www.bluebeyondconsulting.com/blog/72-of-tech-workers-may-quit-their-jobs-fixing-organizational-cultures-can-help-them-stay-put/
Bolman, L. G. & Gallos, J. V. (2016). Engagement: Transforming Difficult Relationships at Work. Wiley.
Dumpeti, V. R. (2023). What I (We) Believe In - 5 Keys Elements of High-Performing Teams from Google's Project Aristotle. Medium.
Grant, A. (2014). Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. Penguin Books.
Ingham, A. G., Levinger, G., Graves, J., and Peckham, V. (1974). The Ringelmann effect: Studies of group size and group performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 10(4), 371-384.
Jordaan, B. (2023). Claiming Value in Negotiation. LinkedIn article. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/claiming-value-negotiation-barney-jordaan/
Lewicki, R. J., Saunders, D. M., & Barry, B. (2021). Essentials of Negotiation (7th ed.). McGraw-Hill.
Parker, K. & Horowitz, J. M. (2022). Majority of workers who quit a job in 2021 cite low pay, no opportunities for advancement, feeling disrespected. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2022/03/09/majority-of-workers-who-quit-a-job-in-2021-cite-low-pay-no-opportunities-for-advancement-feeling-disrespected/
Patterson, K. Grenny, J., McMillan, R. & Switzler, A. (2012). Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When the Stakes Are High. McGraw-Hill.
Reina, D. & Reina, M. (2015). Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace: Building Effective Relationships in Your Organization (3rd ed.). Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Reina, D., Reina, M., & Hudnut, D. (2017). Why Trust is Critical to Team Success. Center For Creative Leadership: Research Report. https://wakeupeager.s3.amazonaws.com/why-trust-is-critical-team-success-research-report.pdf
Stone, D., Patton, B., & Heen, S. (2000). Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. Penguin Books.
TalentLMS. (2021). Survey: Retaining Tech Employees in the Era of the Great Resignation. TalentLMS. https://www.talentlms.com/tech-employees-great-resignation-statistics
Ury, W. (1993). Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations. Bantam Dell.
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