Best Practices for Collaboration

Precis of The Empowerment Manual by Starhawk

What is Decentralized Collaboration?

Starhawk identifies decentralized collaboration with any ill-defined, spontaneous human organization. She claims that collaborating to get shit done happens because people want to see the outcomes of the work and because they want to socialize with others around doing the actual work.

Leaderful Groups

Leadership is work and turns the impulse of one individual into an influential practice sustained by many people over time.

  • taking on responsibility
  • helping group work go smoothly
  • exercising good judgment
  • making mistakes and owning up to them
  • showing compassion and forgiveness
  • integrity
  • bringing relevant expertise, skills, or training
  • mentoring
  • commitment or giving time
  • modeling good self-care for others


Leadership does not take one form. Starhawk reviews three systems of archetypal leadership and group participation and suggests that a leader rarely uses all equally, but we should all hope to better balance between those powers of leadership that we can cultivate.


Starhawk likes mission statements and explicit, ambitious goals. Groups should define their shared vision early on, so that it can be used when conflict emerges. The vision must be big enough that it motivates joiners: throwing a party is nice, but changing the way that people live or creating community is a goal that might get a person to turn off the TV/Facebook and actually go to a meeting! Too big is probably the right size.

Communication Norms

This is a topic where Starhawk kicks serious ass by laying out a lot of shit that is obviously true and then telling you to go do it!

Good Norms

Here are some of her good communication practices:

  • provide energetic support for others by cheering them on in their work, even when you don’t agree with their decision-making in a specific case
  • give each other your attention
  • hold learning as a goal for the entire collaboration, so that conflicts are opportunities for self-improvement rather than just scoring a win for your side
  • engage in constructive conflict whenever possible (Starhawk has a lot to say about constructive critique)
  • mentor each other wherever possible
  • open up the group for participation so that newcomers can become active contributors and members can rise in leadership
  • give proper credit to reward proper work
  • let the work of others stand on its own, even if you could “embroider over it” with your own better work (85)
  • in uncomfortable situations, use non-violent communication: “When I noticed _____, I felt _____, because I need ____. Would you be willing to _______?” (107)
  • share your own emotional experience so that emotions don’t block out or ruin conversation
  • use public accountability to establish who has said they will do what, where they are with this work, and what they need to proceed
  • prioritize face-to-face conversation

Bad Norms

Here is the book’s list of bad communication norms:

  • gossip
  • complaining without confronting people
  • scapegoating
  • building a case for something without exposing it as a possibility for open discussion
  • put-downs to help your side and discourage others from pushing back
  • shut-downs to silence criticism by framing other people’s thoughts as not worth discussing
  • blaming others
  • shaming others
  • threatening others
  • trying to resolve interpersonal conflict online (114)

Dealing with Conflict

Starhawk presents the case that the top problem for collaborative groups is not lack of resources or external problems, but internal conflict. The book addresses conflict at many levels.

Constructive Critique

At a certain level, conflict represents differences coming into contact. This is good and essential to collaboration. Starhawk sees properly regulated communication of this kind as essential, and uses proper critical exchange as a channel to reduce the pressure of conflict everywhere else.

  1. The intention is to improve the work
  2. A constructive critique is specific
  3. Constructive critique is timely — not too soon or too late and not in the middle of something else
  4. Constructive critique is about something that can be changed
  5. Constructive critique is given in private before it’s given in public. An exception here is time explicitly set aside for public feedback.
  6. Constructive feedback suggest improvement; “tell them how you want them to be right” (100)
  7. A critique may have to be given more than once
  1. Try to stay energetically and emotionally neutral. Ground and center yourself.
  2. Just listen. Choose to learn rather than defend yourself.
  3. The best response is almost always a simple thank you. Feedback is a gift.
  4. If you really definitely disagree, try “I’ll think about that”
  5. Stay grounded when receiving praise as well. It may turn out to be manipulation.

Conflict Resolution

Starhawk argues that conflict is good, because it takes a group past the honeymoon phase and forces refinement of the mission statement. Conflict can ultimately ruin the group, so the group must develop a strong ability to handle it and let differences work themselves out productively.

  • try to pursue both seemingly conflicting ideas
  • alternate between one approach and the other
  • try to synthesize the conflict and apply one approach in some situations and the other for others
  • determine who cares most about the issue and help them
  • allocate responsibility for the decision with power (doocracy)
  • put it to majority vote
  • use the right to decide a contentious issue as a reward
  • flip a coin

What Movie Are We In?

Starhawk presents an extremely relatable version of a classic concept of social science, which she calls “what movie are we in?”


The Manual includes a very long section on how to get people in a tiff to talk it over and agree on a path forward. It’s quite long and detailed and if you need it, read this portion of the book (chapter seven).

Serious Wrongdoing

Sometimes a conflict is too serious to invite much attention to frames or agreement. Physical violence, sexual assault, or theft are serious and might not require mediation. In this case, draw on a pool of possible jurors and provide due process to the accused. The Manual advocates borrowing techniques from restorative justice.

Dealing with Difficult People

Some people are chronically difficult for group members to deal with. Explore what drives the difficult behaviors and you’re likely to find trauma.

  1. Comply. Some people learn to become the Good Girl or Good Boy who always aims to please. The Good Girl may be a good peacemaker, but can also indulge others overly. Forums for constructive critique and conflict resolution help a person ease off their instinctive appeasement. Others taking the same “comply” tack will become Perfectionist Boss types, insisting (perhaps rudely) on very high standards. Perfectionists can become a drain, but the trait becomes an asset when they are given responsibility for work that they are already very particular about, using their fault-finding as a consultant or editor, and habituated to constructive criticism. (Of the whole system, this is the type I work with most.)
  2. Rebel. Rebellion is good for the soul, but can make it hard to develop a leaderful organization. The reactive rebel says “No!” to too many things; this pattern can be helped with clear power structures, forums for constructive critique, and delegation of responsibility for areas where the rebel is most vocal. Another form of rebellion is the Terrible Tyrant, where the rebel demands things change without realizing that s/he is actually playing the despot already; transform the tyrant with direct feedback on the dominating behavior, rewarding sensitive and empowering behaviors, mentoring their passion, and holding strong together (in resistance to their tyranny).
  3. Withdraw. Some respond to moments of ingrained self-hatred by withdrawing and undermining. This is basically a passive-aggressive tactic and Starhawk suggests meeting it by bringing the implicit attack out into the open and offering forums for feedback and constructive critique. (I find these people very hard to deal with in volunteer-based structures, because I feel they have every right to make a mess and not engage.)
  4. Manipulate. This pattern of response requires the most complex management by far, as the person actively attempts to corrupt communication channels to get their way. The Manual covers nasty tricks such as rigid framing, getting others to express what you want to say, flattery, divide and conquer, sniping, and “everyone says” providing effective strategies to deal with the manipulation. Another variant covered here is the manipulatory mode of narcissism pursued by divas. The diva, usually driven by deeply wounded self-esteem, requires constant praise. Starhawk’s responses here are simple: don’t deepen their wounds, given specific and grounded praise, encourage changes to the diva behavior, include plenty of support in any critiques given, offer opportunities for real achievement, and set clear boundaries for accountability and how much time/attention to give the diva. (In my experience, manipulators tend to work best with people who are less bright than them; I surround myself with very bright people so manipulators don’t get very far.)

Groups that Work

Starhawk identifies three groups that have kept it going a long time and made a serious impact: Rainbow Grocery, 1999 WTO Protests in Seattle, and Reclaiming. I particularly appreciated her account of the development of the structure of Rainbow Grocery, including the tiers of membership and training and testing required to move from one tier to the next. Fancy.

My Conclusions

This book is an absolute treasure trove for people trying to figure out good collaboration! I think that most people are just too lazy and preoccupied with their own shit to get involved in groups like this. So they work only with top-down institutions that pay or punish them, then hide out to avoid the rest. But for those of us trying to organize things to enliven the world with new paths and practices, this book is great!




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