Successful Collaboration Depends on the Values We Bring to Our Work

I attended a dinner meeting sponsored by a Christian business group a few years ago. After dinner, the organizers asked us to go around the room and discuss the issues we face in our work.

One young manager spoke up and complained that he was having difficulty balancing his desire for success with his attempt to live by the values taught by his church. This surprised me, so I spoke with him afterward and challenged him a bit. He insisted, however, that in his industry, his desire to maintain his integrity was getting in the way of his ambitions.

I thought about this for a few days. As I did so, I realized that while I did not know his situation, in every business and industry in which I have worked, if you lost your reputation for honesty and fair dealing, you were pretty much finished—at least until you had a chance to redeem yourself.

There is a false ideology at work in the world: the idea that integrity and the values and virtues promoted by the church and other religious entities are in fundamental conflict with business effectiveness and the success for which we hope. This false ideology seems to underpin too much of what we hear from outside commentators about business.

The Role of Collaboration

The truth is that in business and related vocations, success is most often heavily dependent on collaboration and healthy collaborative relationships, in other words, on the building of community. Strong, collaborative relationships are in turn dependent on the same virtues taught by most religious traditions.

The values taught by churches, values like humility, compassion, honesty, transparency, equanimity, courage, and others, are essential in their own right, but they are also critical in our work lives.

Nobody wants to do business with someone they cannot trust. It is very hard to form an effective working relationship without at least some mutual concern for each other’s well-being. It is also very hard to work productively with someone who is narcissistic and has little or no sense of humility.

An organization that mistreats its employees will have a hard time generating trust and voluntary cooperation.

There might seem to be exceptions. We can all point to someone who appears to be low on the integrity scale, or perhaps routinely mistreats coworkers and employees, but nevertheless seems to be getting ahead. But these truly are exceptions. Mistreating others usually makes it harder, not easier, to meet one’s business objectives.

We have all stumbled and fallen short of our values at times. But these occasions almost always work against our long-term success, not for it.

The Collaborative Nature of Business

Much of the value of collaboration and collaborative relationships is derived from the nature of business.

To be clear, when I talk about business, I am not talking about things like political cronyism or the attempt to tie up scarce resources in order to charge above-market prices. When I talk about business, I mean the creative, productive process of producing value in the form of products and services that others want to buy. It is this creative, constructive process that most calls for collaboration.

Virtually any product or service we find on the market has a massive network of activities behind it, all of which involve collaborative relationships. There is, of course, often an element of negotiation concerning prices, quality, delivery schedules, etc., and competition between alternative vendors is undoubtedly a factor. Nevertheless, these networks of productive activity are grounded primarily in collaboration and collaborative relationships. It is usually our working relationships that determine our success, not our willingness to compete.

As Michael Novak put it:

It is becoming clearer every day that one person’s work is naturally interrelated with the work of others. More than ever, work is work with others and work for others.

Novak also pointed out that business is a community building process; we build community as we work together towards mutual objectives.[1]

And yet we frequently hear commentators complain from the sidelines about social atomization and the isolation of the individual allegedly brought about by modern business culture.   Rather than understanding success as resulting from productive collaboration, this false ideology focuses on obsessive greed, uncontrolled narcissism, and competitive ruthlessness. Sometimes commercially successful people reinforce this attitude, for example, by talking about “giving back” as though their success has been built on “taking” rather than on producing and giving, or by repeating other misleading cliches.

Most people who have been in business or related occupations for more than a couple of years have learned that without treating people properly, it is difficult, if not impossible, to form the strong collaborative relationships that are usually necessary for success. And these strong, productive, collaborative relationships are grounded in the personal values we bring to our work.

[1] Michael Novak, Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life, The Free Press (New York: 1996), pp. 125, 126.

This post is an updated version of an earlier post.