Best Practices for Collaboration

Precis of The Empowerment Manual by Starhawk

The Empowerment Manual is great. Someone recommended it to help my my team throw a participatory art festival in Mendocino.

We were growing and kept facing challenges that we didn’t know how to resolve. As an offshoot of Burning Man, we drew heavily on it’s culture of doocracy. You simply allocate responsibility with power: no one is going to do but those who offer and they can make decisions however they like. They provide outcomes on a “take it or leave it” basis. “I built you this table but it might be too low for you; too bad! You can build your own table if you want!” Doocracy was our mantra.

However, doocracy isn’t necessarily responsive to those it serves and can turn out quite poorly when everyone is counting on one guy to build a shower, but his plans are clearly flawed and product is not safe at all.

Beyond such self-organizing volunteer-led groups, I’ve found that collaboration pervades formal hierarchies. Wherever things don’t fit into predefined responsibilities, they will get done by whoever is willing to do them on nearly any terms they choose! Although hierarchies seem to do most of the doing in the world (corporations, governments, courts, armies), we are all familiar with the common failures of hierarchy such as lack of motivation (usually balanced by “compensation” alone), lack of concern for outcomes, shitty conditions for those on the bottom, and mismanagement from those who wield power but are too busy to understand what their decisions will really mean.

I wanted to know more about how to improve governance in collaboration and this book helps. It’s half management philosophy and half instruction manual for dealing with a huge list of problems: conflict resolution, kicking people out, rewarding work, flatterers, liars, delegation, and collaborating with groups that don’t respect your groups values.

A note on the author: Starhawk is an neo-pagan eco-feminist with a lot of ideas that you might consider too “woo-woo.” She is aware of that, but this is her most recent book (as of this writing), from 2011, and reflects more than 30 years of organizing weirdos and hippies into groups fighting for causes you probably wouldn’t understand or respect at all. So she’s been fighting the fight for a long time with all kinds of allies and thus I respect her wisdom all the more!

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.

Some just want to hang out and don’t want to do much of the work. Some want to see the outcomes but tend to offer only criticism of other people’s work, without contributing much else.

The basic challenge, she argues, is to reframe collaborative groups as “leaderful” rather than “leaderless” and to empower group members.

Empowerment is a central concept and requires a structure that affirms the member’s “core worth and value of [their] voice” (3). She defines empowerment as a right and responsibility to further one’s cause (4), but the gist of the book is really that you can empower people better by setting good norms within an organization so that members amplify each others power rather than blocking or undercutting it.

The book assumes that any collaborative group is doing work the members consider worthwhile, and that they can do better. Also the group can fail sooner or it can fail much much later! By learning from best practices in collaboration, the group can do more and keep doing it longer. In this way, the book offers an informed and realistic feminist counterpoint to Chicken John’s Book of The Un about how to strengthen and hold together arts groups. (Briefly, Chicken John’s book is rubbish compared to this and reflects the outlook of an individual contributor tries to guess at how management actually works.)

Ultimately, Starhawk is such a badass that if you could do just half of this stuff right, you’d be a huge asset to any collaborative group. My friend who recommended the book described her as a “Jedi” and I see why! Just noticing all this subtle personal stuff and writing it down is pretty impressive.

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Leaderful Groups

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

A common problem of many leftist groups Starhawk has been involved with is that the same critical edge that draws in members to try to change the world also encourages endless criticism of anyone in the group who is doing leadership. She calls this “empowerment to the midline” because the structures to drive empowerment face resistance from social patterns of reducing empowerment, through gossip, suspicion, and un-constructive criticism.

Starhawk’s basic suggestion here is powerful: incentivize leadership. When someone does the hard work of leadership, structures of the group should reward and defend them. Social power in the group (leadership) should be earned explicitly and tied to specific areas (e.g. facilities or marketing). Earned social power can be rewarded many ways such as with explicit thanks, space to have big ideas heard, care from others, marks of respect (e.g. titles), voting rights, or money.

Social power can be earned various ways, but the Manual suggests that power should be given for

  • 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

Another key to unlocking leadership in group members is good delegation. When you delegate, be sure to encourage and give explicit command. Give the new deputy access to as much relevant information as possible. Mentor the deputy. Then be sure to stand back and let them do the work of leadership themselves and let them fail so that they can also learn.

Leadership

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.

One system: Catalyst vs. Champion. Catalysts are people who instigate, motivate, and get things going. Champions are people who steward, defend, and make sure things actually happen. Quite often these are different people, but both roles are important (128–129).

Second system: Graces, Dragons, Crows, Snakes, and Spiders. Graces are welcoming, enthusiastic, and passionate; they draw in the contributions of others by appeal to passion for the work and feeling of camaraderie. Dragons are like champions, holding it down, defending against threats, and making sure that shit gets done. (I don’t know why these are “dragon” qualities, but it doesn’t matter.) Crows are strong on the big picture, seeing what falls through the cracks, what is ahead, and what is going very well already. Snakes are tricky, identifying and exposing hidden conflict and gossip; they can help build group trust by bringing problems to light. Spiders notice anything that happens in the group and keep a watch on what’s happening recently (129–132).

Third system: visionary, coaching, affiliative, democratic, pacesetting, and commanding. Visionary leaders inspire and take the long view, which is very helpful early on for a group but may lack grounding. Coaching brings out the best in individuals, but may sacrifice group needs for individual growth. Affiliative leaders get groups to work together well and bond in friendship, but may be too nice and let bad behavior slide. Democratic leaders listen to everyone and make sure the right people are involved in decisions; however they may struggle stepping up in tough circumstances where democracy is going to help. Pacesetters set a high bar and fast pace — for themselves most of all; this person may well burn out or discourage others from trying at all. Commanding leaders take control and give clear direction, creating order; but this can be a very poor fit for collaboration as the commander becomes permanent dictator. Starhawk considers these last two leadership styles (pacesetting and commanding) mostly inappropriate for collaborative groups, though they are helpful on occasion and someone who can take on this role can provide a real contribution (133–138).

Like the Five Factor Model of personality or the Zodiac system, these archetypes are helpful for thinking about differences between people and how to get along with them. A leaderful organization should encourage members to develop leadership of various types, not just one kind!

Coming from doocracy, I was surprised by this section. I’ve always found pacesetters and commanders to be critical to success (getting things done!), valued Crows over the rest, and did not value affiliative Graces very highly. But then, groups I work with have usually been much less focused on nurturing than getting the powerful players into position and blasting away with full power. I suspect that Starhawk’s experience centers on marginalized groups trying to eke out a better life for their people (which they may define very broadly) whereas my experience is with maker groups trying to deliver things to audiences and have fun in the process.

Vision

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.

Also, any vision statement needs to be somewhat open ended, so that there is space for growth as things change for the group.

Finally, vision statements need to set expectations about group norms, scope, and decision-making. If the group is only about art, then questions of consent can be explicitly dodged. If the group is only about encouraging maker spaces, then don’t expect it to try too hard to support political work that isn’t germane to that mission! But if the group is about changing culture, then all these issues will have relevance.

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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!

An organization that tolerates bad communication practices will encourage members who use bad communication practices. Critical Starhawk insight.

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)
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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.

Starhawk’s rules for constructive critique are delightful and essential to the whole book: good communication means making space for sensible exchange of feelings and opinion to reach better results. Sensible exchange requires civil discussion of how fucked up and wrong everything really is, including one’s own work! Here are her most excellent criteria to distinguish constructive critique:

  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

And for receiving feedback the Manual offers these gems:

  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.

Then, even though it doesn’t fit the chapter’s organization, Starhawk drops the incredible section “Turning an Attack into Critique,” in which she shows how to turn non-constructive critique (“You’re an idiot!”) into useful criticism! So when someone says, “You’re an idiot!” you could say:

“What have I done or said that makes you believe I’m an idiot? Can you be specific? In what way would you like me to behave differently that I do?” (This only works if you are vigilant at keeping your tone neutral. Any hint of sarcasm and you’re back into a fruitless argument.) (102)

See how she has just used the criteria of constructive critique (specific, suggesting improvement) as responses while practicing her guidelines for receiving feedback (stay grounded, listen)?! !!!?! !!! Classy.

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.

Most conflict in collaborative groups is “good versus good,” not “good versus evil.” If a conflict can be handled at the level of values (e.g. it is not “personal”), Starhawk suggests a number of mechanisms to resolve the value conflict:

  • 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

If a conflict is between values that are part of a group’s core mission and values that are not, an answer should be easier to agree on.

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?”

Those of us who have raised teenagers know that often we and they live in very different realities. During that period I call The Sullen Years (roughly between 13 and 16, when they spend most of their waking hours sulking on the couch and texting their friends), teenagers endlessly replay Cinderella. You, ensconced happily in your own movie of some of the better scenes of It’s a Wonderful Life, say brightly, “Cindy, how about helping me bake the holiday pies?” You’re picturing a warm, cozy family scene with a smiling helper in gingham apron rolling out the crusts. Cindy, meanwhile, gives out a deep, put-upon sigh, drags herself up from the clinkers where she’s collapsed, exhausted, from the relentless amounts of thankless work you load upon her. She whines, “I washed the dishes last week. Why do I always have to do everything?”
The movies we are in, the stories we tell ourselves, can make transformation more difficult. Often we get cast in a role early in life… (169)

I found this concept very helpful for understanding many of her ideas: communication norms, constructive critique, affiliative leadership, vision, etc. Framing is another name for this and it is critical to how humans choose to relate to one another, hear things, and make expressions to others. Without recognizing how a person frames a thing, it is easy to miss its significance to them completely.

Mediation

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).

Until then, the Manual recommends keeping a standing pool of possible mediators around who can be called upon in some way to help resolve conflicts when they arise. Just don’t make it a standing ethics committee — that can be an invitation for people to play the victim as a strategy!

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.

The Manual presents a substantial section on archetypes for responding to socialized self-hatred (which Starhawk claims is basically universal). As often happens in this book, some subsections are so rich that they should probably have been their own section.

In this surprising typology, Starhawk presents ways that people have learned to deal with negativity and how to deal with them. I’ve found it to be a really helpful system.

  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.)

Finally, some people are beyond the group’s ability to help. A good test of this is whether the group is enabling behavior or not.

Enabling means protecting people from facing the consequences of their choices and actions. Enabling an addition or colluding with denial is not truly helpful or healing. (232)

If the group’s attempts to support someone with their problems is actually enabling their problem, it may be time to ask the person to leave.

Many times, a group is saved the trouble of ejecting someone by simply shifting its culture toward more health and clarity. Whenever we set clear standards and boundaries and demand that people function at a higher level of interpersonal relationships and integrity, some people will feel so uncomfortable that they leave.
If they don’t, and the group asks them to go, it is important that they receive due process: a chance to answer charges directly and amend their behavior, a clear accounting of agreements that have been broken and procedures that have been followed and a clear accounting of what, if anything, they can do to regain trust. If someone is mentally ill or otherwise dysfunctional, the group may find someone to help them get treatment, counseling or practical help. Never kick someone out of a group in a way that endangers their health or safety: i.e., tossing them out into a snowstorm in the middle of the night. Give them a ride out to the bus stop in the morning, and make sure they have a warm coat and gloves. (236)

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!

That said, in reflecting on the book, I have noticed that I basically depart from Starhawk on the relative importance of getting work done versus hanging out. Hanging out is great, but to me it’s rather easy to come by and simple to get right. Getting work done on my own is fine, but to accomplish bigger things in a more fun and sustainable way, collaboration is essential. Collaboration can happen within a group (within), between the group and other coordinating groups (up), with other similar groups (across), and with subgroups that arrive interested in participating but unsure how (down).

Yet in every one of these cases, the number one problem I experience is just that people don’t have the spoons to get things done and drop the ball, can’t commit, don’t show up, don’t get shit done, insist on changing the plan rather than doing the plan, or otherwise fail to walk the walk. Thus in my experience the top challenge is really how to get people doing more things! My approach, I can now see, has been to lead introverts with technical skill and unshakable focus through pacesetting and commanding. But this is a crappy way to make an organization bigger or make its effect larger, so I still have more to learn about collaboration and collaborative groups!

Essayist.

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