Radical Collaboration with Jim Tamm

By Dr. Wanda Wallace

Collaboration is highly correlated to all the good things we are looking for: increasing the bottom line, making a better environment for people, increasing the levels of trust and increasing levels of engagement. Competing externally is difficult without collaborating internally.

Jim Tamm has spent most of his career as a senior administrative law judge dealing with conflicts including labor strikes. He teaches collaborative skills in a host of places around the world. His book Radical Collaboration has been on Amazon’s bestseller list for many years. He was my guest on my radio show, Out of the Comfort Zone and I wanted to share my insights from that interview with you. The book is called “Radical Collaboration” not because the collaboration effort is radical but because the results are.


How do we as individuals and as teams become better at collaboration?

First, change your attitude. Your mindset towards being collaborative, as opposed to being adversarial, makes all the difference. The more you are aware of your, even unintentional, adversarial feelings, the more likely you are going to get you to a place where you can be more open to collaboration. You can change your attitude by just paying attention to what your attitude actually is. That will increase the chances that you will be more open to collaboration.


Second, there are five core skills that make a substantial difference in building a collaborative environment:

  1. Staying collaborative under stress;

  2. Creating a safe environment where it’s safe to challenge and say the truth. That means for a leader, it’s about paying attention to how you listen and how you criticize people – and making it ok for mistakes and challenges to happen;

  3. Being aware of the choices you are making even when it feels there aren’t many;

  4. Being aware of your own defensiveness. Defensiveness is an unconscious process and it’s often tapping something that we are afraid of – of not being liked, not being competent or of not being significant – among others, and;

  5. Being willing to negotiate through conflict in ways that build relationships. This ultimately comes down to taking the time and the attitude to fully understand and be able to articulate the other person’s interest before you go to the solution.

Third, learn to recognize your defensive reactions. The main stumbling block for many is being defensive. “Defensiveness is almost always unconscious stuff,” says Tamm. There is nothing more effective you can do to become more collaborative than to be better at managing your own defensiveness. Defensiveness is a mechanism for dealing with fears. The most common fears that defensiveness masks are fears about our own significance, competence or likeability.


“A huge first step is to acknowledge your own defensiveness,” says Tamm. We need to recognize our outward signs of defensiveness and then do something in opposition to that. Once you can recognize your own defensive reactions, create a plan to manage them better. You cannot stop the defensive response, according to Tamm, but you can stop what you say and do as a result of defensiveness. If you recognize the defensive response sooner, then you can pause, take a break, step back, stay silent, question the source of the reaction or something else before damage is done to the collaborative effort.


If a team is not collaborating, they do not seek opportunities to help each other, they hide mistakes, they have hidden agendas, they are unable to raise difficult issues and they generally do not help each other.


Jim’s book is available on his website www.radicalcollaboration.com

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