Challenges of Collaboration

A stronger collaboration emerges when challenges and conflicts are handled in a skillful way that creates a successful outcome. Head Start staff members who work with community partners will find this information useful when determining the best ways to minimize and address conflicts and challenges. Keeping a collaboration energized and alive is an ongoing process.

The following is an excerpt from Community Partnerships: Working Together.

How can I support the Head Start community in overcoming collaborative challenges?
I can act on the knowledge ...

  • that keeping a collaborative alive and energized is an ongoing process. By knowing what kinds of challenges to expect, collaboratives can avoid or respond to challenges more readily.
  • that any collaborative can be filled with challenges and conflict. Partners may be involved in creating change in the community, coupled with changing the way they are accustomed to doing business.
  • that forming a peer study group and volunteering to be a member of a collaborative effort are good practice strategies to actively engage in the collaborative process.


It is not unusual for a collaborative to get stuck or lose steam. Many different kinds of events or circumstances can cause a momentum shift, including: frequent membership changes; buried conflicts; lack results; insufficient resources; or shifts in community or agency priorities. The collaborative may also become static or inflexible and lose its capacity to adapt to changing needs or situations. However, when challenges are anticipated, dealt with, and balanced with achievements, they can be the building blocks for a stronger collaborative.

Addressing the Challenges of Collaboration

Challenges, or sandtraps, often serve as a hazard, threat, or danger to be dealt with because they can derail a collaborative effort. The potential sandtraps of a collaborative fall into three broad categories: organizational, leadership, and membership. By knowing what kinds of challenges to expect, collaboratives can avoid or respond to the challenges more readily.

  • Organizational. Organizational sandtraps include:

    • Deciding not to begin until all stakeholders are at the table;
    • Failing to set clear ground rules;
    • Losing sight of the collaborative's purpose or mission;
    • Choosing unattainable goals;
    • Trying to handle too many issues or actions at once;
    • Inadequate resources for carrying out plans;
    • Adverse community relations or media attention;
    • Not stopping to evaluate, reflect, and celebrate; or
    • Not acknowledging or avoiding conflict.

  • Leadership. Leadership sandtraps include:

    • Trying to maintain control by resisting power-sharing;
    • Allowing political pressure or self-interests to drive the collaborative;
    • Lack of shared leadership;
    • Not involving consumers, direct services staff, and policy-makers in critical decisions;
    • Becoming too dependent on one or two partners; or
    • Unrealistic expectations or demands.

  • Membership. Membership sandtraps include:

    • Attempting to act before partners establish a sense of trust and ownership in a shared vision;
    • Frequent turnover in partners or membership organizations;
    • Unequal distribution of work or recognition of partners;
    • Not taking the time to involve opponents, who could easily block what the collaborative's mission and goals;
    • Failing to recognize an individual partner's needs or self-interests; or
    • Turf battles or power struggles among partners.

In order to prepare for challenges, and avoid sandtraps, partners can:

  • Confront underlying issues, such as a vague vision, low trust, power struggles, and differing work styles;

  • Create partner role descriptions and interagency agreements to clarify expectations and responsibilities;

  • Re-energize membership by rotating roles or recruiting new partners;

  • Stay abreast of significant community developments or trends;

  • Evaluate often what is and what is not working; and

  • Celebrate!

Managing Conflict

Conflict is about personal and organizational differences and preferences. The differing values, beliefs, life experiences, backgrounds, and self-interests of partners set the stage for conflict. At the same time, it is partner diversity that makes a collaborative a strong force for change. Conflict can be managed by:

  • Understanding Responses to Conflict

    It is critical for partners to understand how they, as individuals, respond to conflict. People tend to respond to conflict in a number of ways. Each way has its benefits and drawbacks and strikes a different balance between personal concerns and the concerns of others.

    When people use competition to respond to conflict, they focus on winning, regardless of the cost to others. People who use accommodation to respond to conflict neglect their own concerns and focus, instead, on the concerns of others. When avoidance is used, no one's concerns are addressed; instead, conflict is sidestepped or put onto the back burner. Compromise, on the other hand, is used by people who look for a middle ground - a way to give everyone some of what they want. Finally, people who use the win-win way of responding to conflict seek a solution where everyone wins - a solution that satisfies the concerns of all partners.

  • Identifying Sources of Conflict

    Uncovering conflict and pinpointing its source are two more steps toward conflict management. Sometimes, a simple question such as, "what's happening here?" or "what's on everyone's mind?" will bring a masked conflict to the surface and get partners talking about how to resolve it. Other times, it may take a lot of discussion to get to the real source of a conflict and its solution. Typical sources of conflict include: historical baggage between organizations or partners; vagueness about the collaborative's mission or goals; low trust and/or power struggles among partners; little or no concrete proof of progress; lack of authority to act; or too many competing demands on partner time.

  • Learning to Be Unconditionally Constructive

    Being unconditionally constructive encourages the other side to act constructively in return. Here are some key points to remember:

    • Think about your response before acting. Respond to the issue, rather than reacting to your emotions;
    • Try to understand the situation from the other person's point of view;
    • Communicate clearly and briefly. Do not monopolize center stage;
    • Listen carefully and ask questions to clarify (not attack) the other person's position;
    • Keep an open mind and look for potential points of agreement;
    • Practice backing away and letting the group process determine the action; and
    • Do not ignore hostile actions, but try to identify the underlying issues and bring them to the surface.

  • Creating a Conflict Resolution Process

    When the collaborative has a process for resolving conflict constructively, partners are more likely to risk bringing up a conflict and trying to work it out. Thus, another important step toward managing conflict is having a process in place that provides vehicles for partners to:

    • Assess the impact of a conflict on the collaborative's mission and goals;
    • Give everyone an opportunity to speak and be heard;
    • Find points of agreement or, if that is not possible, agree to disagree and move on;
    • Call a meeting for the sole purpose of resolving the conflict or dispute;
    • Appoint a subgroup to study options for resolving the conflict;
    • Use an outside facilitator or mediator; and
    • Forgive and heal.

Even the most difficult conflicts can be managed when a collaborative creates a conflict resolution process that encourages partners to understand and respect each other's views and to continue working together despite differences.

Next Steps: Ideas to Extend Practice

Follow-up training strategies to reinforce the concepts and skills taught in Module 3 are presented below. After completing Module 3, review the strategies with staff and help them choose at least one to work on individually, in pairs, or in small groups.

  • Enhancing Skills in Conflict Management

    Form a peer study group which meets weekly to enhance their conflict resolution skills. Encourage the group to develop a process for resolving conflict. Ask members to take turns presenting a conflict they experienced or observed during the past week. Then, do an impromptu role play of the conflict situation, using the process for managing conflict. Afterwards, discuss the reactions of the role players and the observers, and the conflict's outcome.

  • Dealing With Collaboration's Challenges

    Volunteer to be a member of a collaborative effort at work or in your community. During meetings watch for challenges. Bring your observations up with the group. Practice your skills as a group facilitator by getting everyone involved in discussions about your observations. Be ready to suggest some ways these challenges might be addressed, such as reviewing the collaborative's mission, expanding membership, getting training, involving a third-party facilitator, re-examining the needs and self-interests of partners, and talking openly about underlying issues or partner differences in communication and work styles.

Dangerous Sandtraps 1

Overview
All collaboratives experience challenges. Some are inevitable, while others are dangerous sand traps that can be avoided by alert collaborative partners. Below are some common sand traps to avoid, or act upon if they appear.

Organizational. Organizational sand traps include:

  • Deciding not to begin until all stakeholders are at the table;
  • Failing to set clear ground rules;
  • Losing sight of the collaborative's purpose and mission;
  • Choosing unattainable goals;
  • Trying to handle too many issues or actions at once;
  • Inadequate resources for carrying out plans;
  • Adverse community relations or media attention;
  • Not stopping to evaluate, reflect, and celebrate; or
  • Not acknowledging or avoiding conflict.

Leadership. Leadership sand traps include:

  • Trying to maintain control by resisting power-sharing or shared decision-making;
  • Allowing political pressure or individual partner self-interests to drive the collaborative;
  • Lack of shared leadership;
  • Not involving consumers, direct services staff, and policy-makers in critical decisions;
  • Becoming too dependent on one or two partners to keep the collaborative going; or
  • Unrealistic expectations or demands.

Membership. Potential sand traps surrounding a collaborative's membership include:

  • Attempting to act before partners establish a sense of trust and ownership in a shared vision;
  • Frequent turnover in partners or membership organizations;
  • Unequal distribution of work or recognition of members.;
  • Not taking the time to involve opponents, who could easily block what the collaborative's mission or goals;
  • Failing to recognize an individual partner's needs or self-interests; or
  • Turf battles or power struggles among partners.

Tips for Managing Conflict 2

Overview
Conflict is about personal and organizational differences and preferences. All collaboratives experience conflicts. Conflict can be managed by:

  • Understanding Responses to Conflict. It is critical for partners to understand how they, as individuals, respond to conflict. People tend to respond to conflict in a number of ways. Each way has its benefits and drawbacks and strikes a different balance between personal concerns and the concerns of others. Typical responses include:

    • Competing: Focusing on winning, regardless of the cost to others.

    • Accommodating: Neglecting one's own concerns and focusing, instead, on the concerns of others.

    • Avoiding: No one's concerns are dealt with. Instead, conflict is sidestepped or put onto the back burner until a better time, or not at all.

    • Compromising: Used by people who look for a middle ground--a way to give all partners some of what they want or ask for.

    • Win-win: Seeking a solution that satisfies the concerns of everyone.

  • Identifying Sources of Conflict. Uncovering conflict and pinpointing its source are two more steps toward conflict management. Typical sources of conflict include historical baggage between organizations or partners, vagueness about the collaborative's mission, low trust and/or power struggles among partners, little or no concrete proof of progress, lack of authority to act, or too many competing demands on partner time. You can bring a masked conflict to the surface and get people talking about how to resolve it by:

    • Asking questions such as, "what's happening here?" or "what's on everyone's mind?"; or

    • Initiating a discussion about the real source of a conflict.

  • Learning to Be Unconditionally Constructive. Being unconditionally constructive encourages the other side to act constructively in return. Here are some key points to remember:

    • Think about your response before acting. Respond to the issue, rather than reacting to your emotions;

    • Try to understand the situation from the other person's point of view;

    • Communicate clearly and briefly. Do not monopolize center stage;

    • Listen carefully and ask questions to clarify (not attack) the other person's position;

    • Keep an open mind and look for potential points of agreement;

    • Practice backing away and letting the group process determine the action; and

    • Do not ignore hostile actions but try to identify the underlying issues and bring them to the surface.

  • Creating a Conflict Resolution Process. Some tips on resolving conflict include:

    • Going back to the collaborative's mission with the question, "If we want these results, what must we do about this conflict?";

    • Get everyone's views on what the conflict is and possibilities for resolving it;

    • Search actively for a compromise or a win-win solution;

    • If settlement of a conflict seems impossible, agree to disagree while continuing to work together;

    • Call a meeting for the sole purpose of resolving the conflict or dispute;

    • Appoint a subgroup to study options for resolving or managing the conflict;

    • Get a third-party facilitator or mediator involved in finding a solution to the conflict; and

    • Establish rituals for forgiveness and healing.

1 & 2 Adapted from Atelia Melaville and Martin Blank with Gelareh Asayesh, Together We Can: A Guide for Crafting a Profamily System of Education and Human Services (Washington: D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Education and U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 1993).

"Challenges of Collaboration." Community Partnerships: Working Together. Training Guides for the Head Start Learning Community. DHHS/ACF/ACYF/HSB. 2000. English.

Last Reviewed: June 2009

Last Updated: February 20, 2015