The problem with a process view of working together

In the last article “Bringing Collaboration to Life” we covered the phenomenon of collaboration as a business model, and the growing trend toward applying collaboration using the international standard ISO 44001. In this article we will cover the underlying cultural bias toward logical, rational, left brained ways of thinking and working.


In his seminal work ‘The Master and his Emissary,’ British psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist unpacks how left-brained thinking has very much framed and influenced the making of the Western World, its systems, processes, and fundamental organisational assumptions. Iain brings together 30 years of brain-based neuroscience to show the fundamental differences in approach between these 2 halves. Following are the main differences when we consider collaboration:

Meaning making reason, the obvious imagination, the nuanced
Focus narrow view, one thing broad view, many things
Attention sharply focused, disconnected open focus, connected
Emotion distance and decision empathy and connection
Language speech, text, words metaphor, image
Connection abstraction, parts context, relationship
Approach linear, dialectic intuitive, deduction
Focus / logic known, routine new, novel
Strategy / approach local, self-preservation global, community building

Consider the implications then, if our society, our education system, our default assumptions, our view of life and our organisational culture are all skewed toward the left. If we genuinely desire to adopt the principles of business collaboration we must start with the awareness that the very ground we stand on is very left-brained tilted. Run your eye down the left hand column in the table above and notice what the left brained serves us: the obvious, with a narrow focus on what is disconnected. It leans toward quick decision making, uses language and words to communicate (texts and emails) and acts in a linear, dialectic way (right/wrong, in/out). It works with what is known (the way we do it around here), wants routine (a path to follow in three easy steps) but is focused on self preservation.

Our collaboration is still… like a robot

How well do you think this will lead to great business collaboration? In 2017, the ICW published the results of a survey of businesses in the UK trying to adopt collaborative ways of doing business.[1] Yet even the results – which were trying to push in the direction of relationship, connection, empathy and community building – are very left brained. Here is a flavour of the findings:

  • “Identification of 126 personality attributes, defined by positive and negative dimensions.”
  • “Empirical analysis allowed categorization into aggregate categories.”
  • “Top ten individual attributes, grouped under three areas in line with relational norms.”

Beep, bop, boop… input/output! How does one then move from quantitative – a focus on the numbers, categories, boxes, dimensions – toward qualitative results and behaviours – trust, compassion, empathy, listening, understanding – that create real collaboration?

Could it be that 50% of the solution is missing? Could successful collaborative working require a whole-brained approach? We actually believe that, given the left brain tendency, it is going to take a strong input from right brain ways of being to move the needle (which is the topic of our third article).

Changing culture in left-biased organisations

Consider one of the most popular culture survey instruments – the Human Synergistics International (HSI) circumplex.  This tool helps individuals, leaders, teams and whole organisations to assess where their culture is at. It is based upon Maslow’s theoretical ‘hierarchy of needs,’ and provides a view of where you sit in terms of satisfying those levels:

  • physiological (food, sleep, sex)
  • safety and security (resources, family, health)
  • love and belonging (family, friends, social group)
  • esteem (confidence, achievement, respect)
  • self-actualisation (creativity, morality, fulfillment).

Wikimedia Commons – Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The HSI diagnostic tool shows where the individual, team or organisation sits against meeting these aspects. Simply put there are red (aggressive), green (passive-aggressive) and blue (self-actualised) behaviours. If you’re running red, your basic needs are not being met. If you’re running green, then intermediate needs are not being met. If you’re running blue, then everything is sweet.

Every single government agency, infrastructure project, advisory engagement or engineering company we have seen and worked in had green, passive-aggressive results. They are upset, but don’t express it. They tend toward undermining one another – white-anting instead of confronting and asserting themselves. Behaviour in this way is counterproductive, and undermines the corporate objectives, so the goal is to get people to adopt more ‘blue’ self realised behaviours.

If you recognise this as being part of your workplace, you might also notice that people in these organisations tend toward directing others to follow the process, getting on with the program and sticking to the work plan. They tend toward taking a left brain set of solutions, without even being aware of it or understanding how their behaviour undermines collaboration – and thus outcomes!

To move from green to blue – from passive aggressive to self actualised – we need to negotiate friendship, family, intimacy. We need to obtain achievement through the respect of others. And we need to build self-esteem through demonstrated creativity and morality. Such things are all very grounded in right brain, collaborative and relational activity. To make change work, and to make change stick, we need to collaborate. To collaborate we need to be both left and right brained in our approach, both logical and relational.


It is ironic that the International Standard for collaboration, ISO 44001 was written by left-brained engineers and project managers with a tendency to use logic, reason and rationality to design process, produce checklists and tell people to follow a program, plan and contracting. Or to be even more candid – engineers and lawyers are trained to do the opposite of collaboration. Those trying to apply collaborative principles in organisations start with assumptions that are heavily biased toward left brained ways of thinking, perceiving, designing and acting.

To collaborate well then, leaders need to recognise the left-brain bias and design much more neuroscience based, integrated ways of collaborating that are qualitatively different and include right brained, relational aspects and expertise.

In the third article we will cover the ways we can bring our whole brain to work – balancing left tendency with right creativity, innovation and relationship.


By Ute Diversi and Robert Holmes
December 2023

[1] “Chakkol, M., Finne, M., and Johnson, M. (2017). Understanding the psychology of collaboration: what makes an effective collaborator?” ICW, UK and the Warton Business School, p9.

Adash Janiszewski

Chief Executive Officer

Adash is Providence’s CEO and is responsible to the Providence Board and Providence’s clients for ensuring the timely delivery of outcomes through advice, guidance and mentoring to Providence’s staff.