Consultation or Collaboration: why it's important to know the difference

By Nicole Barrett, Psychologist

Jun 18, 2016

consultation or collaboration

Time and time again, I hear employees express their opinion about 'one directional' change events and feelings of 'being done to' with regard to new systems and solutions being pushed upon them. Yet ask a Project, Change or People Manager and invariably they will argue that 'we had a rigorous consultation process'.

Something is terribly awry!

Our post-change implementation evaluations reveal a strong pattern where management and SMEs share significantly more positive experiences of engagement and consultation than those at the coal face doing the work. On top of this, our culture diagnostics and engagement measures show that lack of consultation is a key source of dissatisfaction among employees.

There are multiple causal factors to consider, some of the more obvious being that:

  • Managers tend to over consult with other managers; and
  • Managers fail to follow through with the consultation process and neglect to act as communications role models.

Even where consultation does occur, staff frequently report that the outcome does not reflect their feedback provided. Is it any wonder they hold perceptions that the process is superficial and more about ratification than genuine consultation?

Allow me to ruffle a few feathers...

"What's espoused is 'consultation', what employees want is 'collaboration' and, what often occurs is neither"

Perhaps the terminology 'consultation' is confusing the issue by not meeting employee expectations and appeal for upfront collaboration. Go figure... the people impacted by change are highly motivated to contribute and form part of the solution. If they are choosing to not participate in your consultation processes, this is most likely due to previous experiences and a belief that there is no point.

With 'consultation', the solution is often predetermined and the purpose of engagement is to socialise or seek feedback on something that is already in progress or decided. Conversely, 'collaboration' takes place when the solution is not yet known and a group work together in defining the problem as well as how to resolve it.

So why is it that collaboration is so tricky?

Despite what we know about how people react to change, we continue to expect them to buy into a solution rather than enlist them in solving the problem. The most commonly reported rationale, for not collaborating, relates to 'time' pressures. This is usually linked with poor planning and/or management decisions holding things up, yet the delivery date doesn't alter to reflect the delay. On the surface this seems valid and, in some cases, it rings very true.

Yet I can't help by wonder, with all the known benefits of collaboration, why do we continue to avoid it? What else is going on?

I'm thinking about human behaviour, group dynamics and how the role of authority figures can play out in organisations...

  • I am the manager and or subject matter expert;
  • I know what's best;
  • Others can't be trusted; and
  • If I collaborate, I lose control and may not get what I want!

Ring any bells?

We need to be mindful of any unconscious biases and personal desires to look good at work and remind ourselves that the cost of a badly run consultation process is extremely high with:

  • Poor problem definition and a limited understanding of the requirements;
  • Off target solutions;
  • Resistance to the change;
  • Disengagement, apathy and reluctance to contribute in future; and
  • Loss of credibility and trust in the senior leadership.

Our approach demonstrates that the people closest to where the work gets done are the 'experts' and collaboration results in improved engagement, innovative fit for purpose solutions and acceptance of change.

At the very least, organisations need to distinguish and clearly articulate which approach is being adopted [consultation vs collaboration] to alleviate the frustration and disappointment which arises from a disconnect or mismatch between worker expectations and the final outcome.

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