There is a saying that strength comes in numbers. The more people the better. Why have a group of five when you can have a group of 10? It’s the idealistic, euphoric, pie in the sky feeling behind the idea of collaboration. This desire to all be a part of something together. It is touching. As the high-performance model has become increasingly more popular, the pressure to collaborate has become greater, which it should. As advocates for the high-performance model, we all share the need to engage in highly collaborative processes. But getting results out of a collaboration has very little to do with numbers. There is a reason why collaborations fail at times. Understanding why those failures occur, how to prevent them, and how to collaborate on an elite level is the topic of today’s blog.

Collaboration is Essential

My time with the US Men’s National Team has given me a much deeper understanding of collaboration. To be successful at the international level in sport, collaboration is essential. We have limited contact hours with our player pool. Most of the direct performance and medical development happens within the player’s club environments, not the national team environment. Success became an issue of how we, as a high-performance department, defined direct versus indirect influence on player health and performance. The defeatists mindset resigns to the idea that direct influence on the player’s health and wellness is not possible from the national team side of the equation. But I learned that if I approached the role with a truly collaborative mindset, then I could have a massively direct influence on player performance outcomes, even when I did not have direct contact with the player. The same is true in any environment. All we need is an understanding of the foundational principles that drive true collaboration.

Collaboration is about Risk

In its simplest form, collaboration is about sharing, sharing talents, sharing information, sharing resources, sharing ownership …. It’s about sharing. But what makes sharing so difficult? Quite simply, its about risk. The depth of our sharing in a collaborative relationship is directly related to the level of risk we are willing to take. And that risk is felt viscerally because at the most basic fundamental level, we have to be willing to accept that the final outcome of true collaboration will not (and should not) totally be under our control: that we will be accountable to some level for success and failure. It’s the vulnerability of risk that makes collaboration uncomfortable. The level of collaboration is a result of an individual’s subconscious (or conscious) appraisal of their vulnerability.

True Collaboration is Selfless

When collaboration is a necessity for our success, it is critical that we understand vulnerability. It is critical that we understand how to minimize it and create the necessary environment for vested sharing. In the presence of vulnerability, we will never achieve the one thing that turns playful superficial sharing into deep connected collaboration, and that’s sacrifice. True collaboration is selfless. It is characterized by a common willingness from everyone involved to sacrifice, to put the goal of the group in front of individual goals. I have seen this time and time again in my role with the national team. Both club and country need players at their best for our own individual agendas, but until we put the player first and our needs second, we cannot ever truly collaborate.

Strong Collaborative Relationships Require Trust

So how do we get to this place of reciprocal selflessness? Be vulnerable first. Build trust by showing our own willingness to be vulnerable. This is not a negotiation where the first one to make a move loses. This is fundamental relationship building with the goal of building collaborative teams who share deeply, freely, and frequently. Strong relationships need transparency, understanding, accountability and ownership. They need people who are willing to give praise to others and accept personal responsibility for mistakes. A person with those qualities can be trusted. When we become vulnerable first, we instantly clear the tension in the group. Everyone becomes more willing to put their defenses down. We see each other more clearly and spend less time thinking about how another team members actions might cause us harm. If you were in a group like that, would you be more willing to take risk? Would you be more willing to be vulnerable? Would you be more willing to be transparent? I would.

Repeatedly, I have experienced the positive effects of being vulnerable first. My collaborative relationships with clubs worldwide improved exponentially and those relationships became radically transparent. All of this leads us to the most important question that we all need to ask if we are finding it difficult to form strong collaborative relationships. Why don’t they trust me? For some of us that is going to be a hard pill to swallow. But it is necessary for heathy collaborative relationships. High performing teams are high in trust and low in ego. If we start with looking inward, then we are preparing ourselves to be true collaborators.

What are some examples of good and bad collaborations you have been a part of? What made them good? What made them bad? If you had the chance to go back in time, what would you change?