The Secret Life of Us – The Surprising Psychology of Collaboration (pt 1)

 In Business decisions, Collaboration, Insights, Management, People decisions, Realizer Blog, Teams

In part 1 of a 2 part blog, X or Y founder Rob Pyne looks at the problems and myths of collaboration. This blog is the companion to a talk delivered to the Mumbrella360 marketing and advertising conference in June 2014.

Would you cheat on me?

Famous behavioural psychologist Dan Ariely has done a number of experiments on cheating. In general they show that when the opportunity arises, most people cheat a little bit, a sizeable minority don’t cheat at all, and only a very small number cheat a lot. Ariely wonders why we think of ourselves as honest people, when we basically aren’t. Evidence suggest we close this “dissonance” by rationalising that everybody cheats – so it’s ok, or that we didn’t really cheat that much anyway, or we tell ourselves some other kind of story to explain away our own behaviour.

Ariely then decided to run the same kind of study in advertising agencies. He thought that because this “story-telling” is how we justify cheating, that people who are more creative might actually be able to justify cheating more. He ran the experiments across different departments of agencies, from finance, to account handling to creative. And indeed, he did find that the more creative your role at work, the more likely you were to cheat.

So, for those who work in creative industries, what hope is there to form collaborations built on trust, ones where we don’t cheat on each other?

Pointing the finger

Let’s imagine you work for a particular type of advertising agency, say a media agency like I did. You have to collaborate with an increasing array of creative, digital, social, PR and other agencies to get results for your clients’ marketing. It’s easy to start out with the best of collaborative intentions when you start working with a new partner agency. But it can quickly sour. Why?

In my recollection of these kind of relationships, I remember that it was always the other agencies’ fault. They were dumb and we were smart. They were late while we were mostly on time. Their presentations looked like dogs’ breakfasts while ours looked like works of art.

An unlikely story in hindsight. It’s very easy to point the finger when things go wrong, but we aren’t so good at acknowledging our own contribution.

One fascinating experiment literally put a finger on why. English neurologists had subjects paired in a tit-for-tat experiment. They were each hooked up by a machine which would put pressure on their index finger, and it was controlled by the other person. They asked the participants to apply the same pressure on the other person as they had just felt. It turned out they could not do it fairly, and each time they exerted considerably more pressure than they had received. The paper they wrote as a results was called Two Eyes for an Eye and empirically proves why tit-for-tat can, and does, get out of hand as we play down the effects of our own behaviour and play up the impact of other people’s behaviour or mistakes. Before you know it, we can be in all out war and both sides are adamant that the other side started it.


Earlier this year when I ran some advertising agency focus groups including the topic of collaboration, there were glimmers of hope in that most people could talk about a positive and successful experience. However the majority of collaborative relationships were still deemed poisonous with words such as “land-grabbing”, “useless”, “defensive” being used to describe their erstwhile partners. One agency CEO even went as far as to say that collaboration is a vastly over-used word, and that the very best agencies don’t collaborate – they do things their way. Meanwhile his website made a strong point of their collaborative attitude.

In my experience in advertising when a client called a pitch and asked about collaboration, we would tend to offer proof by either a) listing all the other agencies we had ever worked with or b) get a couple of friendly CEOs to do a video testimonial for us. I ended up thinking that perhaps we knew less than we thought about how to really collaborate.

The rational model

In preparation for this blog, I spoke to a number of CEOs of different agencies, as well as some clients. The discussion around collaboration started with what I’ll call the rational model. In this model collaboration happens when you:-

  • Incentivize people in the right way
  • Have collaboration as a core value in the organisation
  • Appoint one senior lead from each agency
  • The client makes everyone’s role clear
  • Issues of money/fees are resolved upfront
  • Communicate clearly, face to face, and supported by collaboration tools

But it seemed to me there must be more to collaboration than this, there must be some fundamental human psychology that sometimes enables us to put a man on the moon, but other times means we can’t get a simple banner ad produced and on the right website on time.

The myths of collaboration

So I investigated the myths of collaboration.

The most basic one seemed to be that collaboration leads to worse ideas and losing face and money. But these are myths. For starters, the concept that collaboration waters down ideas is not true, it strengthens them. Within Google, they found a massive 0.81 correlation between collaboration and successful innovation.

And in my CEO interviews, the most enlightened of them had worked out that when you collaborate well it leads to more business – partners refer you and you win business without pitching; clients can see what you’ve done and are more likely to retain your services or use you for a subsequent project. In my interviews there was a nuance here as well: agencies working on a project basis put more emphasis on collaboration than agencies working on retainers. The latter group sometimes feel that they have more to lose and little to gain from collaborating.

The root cause of all collaboration failures is actually pretty straightforward. And it’s not their fault. It’s your fault for being defensive, which is often expressed as demeaning the other party’s work. Being defensive means that we’re worried our ideas aren’t the best; we’re worried that if we let go of total control the client will value us less.

The second myth I came across was the idea that if you put, for example, a media expert, creative expert, and social media expert in a room you will end up with a marketing solution which is brilliant from all those angles. In fact, expertise alone is not enough. If those experts are arrogant and don’t listen to the challenges and ideas from non-experts in their field, then it’s impossible to make the teams work together effectively. The CEO who talked about this called it the “arrogance of expertise”.

The last myth was that more collaboration means more meetings and more emails. This is undoubtedly the route many people go down when told to collaborate. But it’s the quality of meetings and emails that counts, not the quantity. In particular, we look for:-

  • How honest are people being?
  • Is there clarity and commitment at the end of meetings?
  • Are partners able to really hold each other accountable?

One of the worst set-ups for collaboration I’ve seen came from a client where the creative agency was able to select and directly employ the media agency. So, while the media agency had a seat at the table in most meetings, they were almost completely unable to challenge the creative agency’s ideas. This lack of honesty can lead to dreadful collaboration.

The solutions

For the three ways to improve the way you collaborate, check out part 2 of the blog.

Written by Rob Pyne