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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021


Working across organizational boundaries has become common practice, for example, in public-private partnerships, joint ventures or strategic alliances. For successful collaboration it is essential that differences in interests, goals, competencies, perspectives and identities are discussed and that interdependencies are explored. Parties need to be able to work with diversity which is not easy. Interorganizational collaboration often goes together with stereotyping, distrust, power games and outspoken, relational, conflict (Gray, 1989; Vansina, Taillieu & Schruijer, 1998, Schruijer, 2008a). Task conflict though (different from relational conflict, Jehn, 1995) is needed for successful collaboration. Such conflict results from facing the present diversity and constructively dealing with it. Sometimes however, both types of conflict are absent. Parties seem to agree and compliment one another generously. Such apparent harmony may be symptomatic for collusion (Schruijer, 2008b). This paper aims at understanding collusive processes in working with multiple interests in interorganizational configurations. First the various uses of the term collusion in different disciplines and perspectives are discussed (policy sciences, economics, psychoanalysis, social psychology). Based on this theoretical exploration I arrive at an understanding of the term collusion where something needs to remain hidden among protagonists. Diversity is suppressed so as to maintain an illusion of harmony. Collusion does not need to imply deceit yet involves an implicit and often non-conscious collaboration aimed at a mutual satisfaction of hidden needs, such as avoiding expected negative consequences of a confrontation (fear of rejection, threat to ones self esteem, powerlessness). Parties are not or not fully aware of these underlying motives. Collusion is the opposite of task conflict. Outsiders or insiders who have maintained a psychological independence, see through collusion much more easily than those directly involved (Schruijer, 2008b).Subsequently I will depict the manifestations of collusion in multiparty collaboration. Four categories are distinguished, namely: (1) suppressing diversity, leading to an illusion of harmony (reflected in a.o. going along with the opinion of others, rejecting deviants, working with unchecked assumptions), (2) excluding parties (for example rejecting interest groups, not willing to work in the here-and-now with all relevant parties; psychologizing), (3) a strong reduction of complexity that reduces the issue to manageable proportions (for example avoiding (to explore) interdependencies, quick bilateral deals, call for a strong leader), and (4) a climate that feels inauthentic (for example going through the motions, no vehemence in the discussions, escape in the future or in fantasies and despite all this expressing satisfaction with the collaboration process). Collusion is expressed in an interplay of these four categories.In a final section I will discuss the conditions that are needed to prevent or counteract collusion. I will focus on the importance of people who think independently, stay in touch with reality and who have the courage to express deviant opinions. I will also address the issue of power. What may appear as collusion may really be a suppression of dissent to sustain the existing power distribution. Deviants easily get labeled as rebels or heretics. They are threatening to the status quo and are treated accordingly (Kurtz, 1983; Alford, 2001). Scapegoating helps to individualize the problem which in turn sustains the power structure. To avoid collusion it is important to create conditions that allow for different opinions. Diversity needs to be valued and a climate of safety and trust needs to be cultivated as an exposure of the dynamics may result in feelings of shame and loss of face. Insights into the dynamics can be enlarged by taking time and space for reviewing (Vansina & Vansina-Cobbaert, 2008). Other important conditions for successful collaboration will be referred to such as identifiying and bringing together the relevant parties, legitimizing their presence, neutralizing power differences and tolerating ambiguity (Schruijer & Vansina, 2008).