Episode 351 – Collabor(h)ate with Dr Deb Mashek

Deb Mashek‘When I went into [writing a book], people were telling me, oh, it’s going to be so lonely. you’re going to lock yourself in a room… nothing could be further from the truth. This was the most collaborative process from day one.’

If you want to do work that matters, the unavoidable truth is that you’re going to need to collaborate with others at some point. And that can be the most joyful, creative, energising experience…. but very often it isn’t. 

What IS it about collaboration that’s so damn hard? Turns out that even with the best collaboration tools and project processes, in the end it all comes down to relationships. The good news is that you can learn to collaborate better, and Deb Mashek has spent years researching exactly how to help you do that. 

The other good news is that you can bring those collaboration skills to the process of writing your book, and make it not only better but more fun along the way. Find out how….  



Collabor(h)ate site: http://collaborhate.com/

Deb on TikTok: https://www.tiktok.com/@debmashek

Deb on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/debra-mashek/

Alison on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alison-jones-9b09893/

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge April 2023: http://proposalchallenge.com/

WriteBrained: A 28-day exploratory writing adventure: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=writebrainedcourse

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

Power Up Your Writing Workshop, 23 February: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/power-up-your-writing-workshop-tickets-473591162917

Alison Jones: I am here today with Dr. Deb Mashek who is an experienced professor of social psychology, higher education administrator, and national nonprofit executive. Named one of the Top 35 Women in Higher Education by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, she was Founding Director of Claremont College’s Office of Consortial Academic Collaboration, and the inaugural Executive Director of Heterodox Academy, a national nonprofit advancing constructive disagreement on college campuses. I think that sounds so much fun.

She’s the founder of Myco Consulting, LLC, where she speaks, advises and facilitates workshops on applying relationship science to help teams build healthy and effective collaborations so that they can accomplish ambitious goals.

Her new book is called Collabor(h)ate: How to build incredible collaborative relationships at work, even if you’d rather work alone.

So welcome to the show, Deb. It’s great to have you here.

Deb Mashek: Thank you. It’s good to see you.

Alison Jones: It’s really good to have you here and that whole kind of space of relationship science and collaboration and, we know we have to do it because you don’t get anything done unless you collaborate, right? Anything that matters. Why is it so hard?

Deb Mashek: You know, you’re right, so we know we’re supposed to do it, but it’s really, really hard to do well. Yet we’re driven to it because we know so, you know, just think about like, very few of us ever receive any formal training in how to be an amazing friend or how to be an amazing spouse or how to be an amazing parent.

And that social assumption that somehow you’re either good or bad at this and it is sink or swim, carries right on into the workplace where we assume you’re either good or not good at collaboration. And then, you layer on to that, the fact that you have all of these managers and directors who also don’t know how to collaborate, trying to lead people who also don’t know how to collaborate.

So there’s just a lot of compounding confusion about what makes a great collaboration, how to be a great collaborator, and we’ll maybe talk about some of the data that went into the book. But as part of the writing process, I reached out, I conducted a study, talked to, well, not talked to, conducted a survey with 1100 people who work full-time in the United States and I asked them, how much education have you received in how to collaborate well.

A full 30% said none, and a whopping 7% said a few minutes. So I think people are maybe watching TikTok videos or reading Dilbert cartoons. But you know people, this is not something we’re talking about how to do well, which makes it really incredibly difficult.

Alison Jones: It’s so true, isn’t it? We do it. It’s just one of those things that you’re supposed to just do, sort of auto, born knowing this stuff, except clearly you’re not. That’s the whole problem. But the other thing is that actually when it goes right, it’s really good. So when you do have a collaboration that works, it’s the best, right?

I mean, it’s actually better than working on your own.

Deb Mashek: Oh my gosh. I love it when collaborations go well, it’s like glitter encrusted unicorns fly through the sky. The things you’re able to get done are so much more magnificent than what you can do alone. But you know, there are some essential ingredients, namely, you need really high quality relationships, and you need really well structured work.

And if you don’t have those two things, the collaboration will fall short of its potential.

…and probably be really frustrated along the way too.

Alison Jones: Yes, right.

And that term relationship science, I mean people don’t necessarily think of that as being something to apply as a body of knowledge at work, do they? Have you sort of met with blank stares when you talk about it?

Deb Mashek: Yes, especially in say the tech world, when you talk about how to be a good collaborator. People go, their minds go to one of two places. One, what are the collaborative platforms? So thinking about all the different ways you can coordinate project work. And we can have a shared, you know, Asana this and a Trello this. Really important but that’s really about how to structure work.

And the second place their minds go is, oh, well yes, we use Agile, or we use Waterfall, or we use Six Sigma, some of those things. And also that is about how you structure the work. Trying to do those things without thinking about the relationship science piece, the relationship quality piece, in my mind is kind of like trying to cook without salt.

So it’s like you need that, you need the relationship quality piece to really heighten the experience, the potential, and without relationship quality, you’re kind of stuck in the mud.

Alison Jones: And I love that you are kind of holding out hope here. You’re saying to people, even if you hate this, even if you’re really, if you think you’re really bad at it, it’s possible to learn. You are not kind of, you know, doomed to be the person who cannot collaborate and who hates collaborating all the rest of it.

Clearly we haven’t got time in this podcast for you to reveal all the secrets of how to be a better collaborator. But you know, just tease us, give us a thing that you can teach people that will help them do collaboration better.

Deb Mashek: Yes, so this whole, you know, like all relationships, there are better and worst things you can do if you want to nurture the relationship. In parenting, be a responsive parent. That’s the same thing in our romantic partnerships. And actually it’s the same thing in our workplace relationships too.

So responsiveness. Where, you know, having your head up to pay enough attention to what others are signaling about their needs and wants and valuing those on par with your own needs and wants, is something that we’re trying to optimize across. One of the simple things.

Another, I’ll give you a second simple thing is engaging in reciprocal and escalating self-disclosure. So, you know, I talk about talk about yourself. And so when somebody, really simple, when somebody says, how are you doing? Give a real answer. If you’re able to answer that question in under 30 seconds, I think you should try harder, quite frankly, because, you know, it’s like tell somebody how you’re really doing and then ask them with genuine curiosity and care to hear how they’re doing and just that moment of connection ends up being an asset we can draw on later when things get tough in the collaboration.

Alison Jones: Give me the phrase again, escalating self….

Deb Mashek: Escalating and reciprocal self-disclosure. So you don’t probably on the first meeting, want to talk about your reaction to say the death of your dog, but maybe you would like to talk, share something about what you did this weekend. But after you’ve been working with someone for some extended period of time, you could probably rachet it up a little bit while keeping it workplace appropriate.

So you probably don’t want to talk about your colonoscopy.

Alison Jones: Yes, I think it’s quite an advanced stage of any relationship that you’re going to be bringing that one out, isn’t there.

Deb Mashek: Yes, yes, I’d keep that to yourself.

Alison Jones: It’s a great phrase. I’m going to try and remember it and I probably wouldn’t use it when talking to somebody. I wouldn’t say, Hey, shall we do a little bit of whatever that thing was?

Yes, good.

Deb Mashek: And what’s cool about just that recommendation and all of the others in the book, is they’re totally grounded in the empirical research on what works in close relationships. So what I’ve basically done is taken…

…so I used to be a Professor, and I would teach the Psychology of Close Relationships course. And basically what this book is, is a Psychology of Close Relationships course applied to your collaborations. So all of the ideas are backed by research, which is hopefully valuable and valued by people out there in the real world.

Alison Jones: And that is very cool. It’s not just, Hey, this worked for me. It might work for you. It’s like, this is how we work as human beings people, so you might as well use it.

And in writing, tell me about, is it possible you sit down, you write a book, it’s a solo sport, right? Or is it? Could you collaborate on that?

Deb Mashek: Oh my gosh. When I went into this, people were telling me, oh, it’s going to be so lonely. you’re going to lock yourself in a room. And Deb, I worry about you because you’re very social. I don’t think this is probably, you know, you’re going to have to think about ways that include others.

So nothing could be further from the truth. This was the most collaborative process from day one. Including things like, okay, so there are all sorts of layers. One, the participants who were involved in the research, they’re my collaborators as far as, well, they contributed in a very meaningful way. Some of them I’m still in conversations with, which is amazing.

My LinkedIn colleagues where I would float ideas and put little bits that I was thinking on or pilot test something, they were engaging and giving me feedback. I created this thing called the Collaboratorium, which is just a Facebook group and I started inviting, you know, started with my friends, like Hey, can I can bring you into this, I’m going to ask questions or share things that I’m struggling with. And in that group, people were so supportive and amazing ideas and we just had I think a lot of fun developing some of the pieces. And you know, a couple times people were like, Deb, that makes no sense. Like, don’t say that. I’m really glad to know that before we published it in those pages.

So the Collaboratorium and then two others that are very directly relevant to you, Alison. One is the Friday campfire. So to have this opportunity to come together with these other, pretty much everybody, there’s I think one day over the past year where there was someone there who wasn’t writing a book, but all these people who are writing a book, sharing the vulnerability of saying I don’t know what I’m supposed to do next.

Sharing ideas and workshopping, like actually being able to dedicate time to say, here’s a problem and can you all help me figure out how to solve that and the friendships that have developed out of that for me. So I live in New York, I’m totally going to come sleep on people’s couches in London that I met in the campfire. So that was a very collaborative thing.

And the last one I want to mention is the team at Practical Inspiration. So from stem to stern, like everything from what do I want on the cover, what colors would I like on the cover? That felt incredibly collaborative and back and forth. And at no point have I felt let out to sea, like I’m just floating there as a solo author.

So this has been a delightfully communal process and it feels a little embarrassing that I get to put my name on the cover.

Alison Jones: So much to pick up on there and I want to come back to the idea of fun in a minute as well because I think that’s really important and you do it so well. But just sticking with collaboration in writing for a minute. So the three, just to recap, the Collaboratorium, have I said that right?


Deb Mashek: Yes, yes, I thought I was being so clever when I came up with that name. Evidently, there are a lot of collabortoriums out there.

Alison Jones: I never heard of any before. Brilliant. And it gives it an identity. It’s kind of fun and as you say the people in there just backed you all the way. I think if you are writing a book, you’ve kind of won the lottery when it comes to, you know, getting people interested because everybody is so fascinated when you’re writing a book.

So, you know, if you are kind of, I don’t really want to talk about it, I don’t want to annoy people. Generally, if you put the invitation out there, many, many people will be really excited to join you if you’re writing about something that they care about and if they care about you. So, that.

And secondly the virtual campfire, which I love too. It is just amazing and I think that when you are, it can feel lonely I think, if you’re writing a book and nobody else that you know is, so being, hanging around with other people who are doing the same thing, even just that energy and that kind of self, you know, that belief that this is something that can be done because here’s these other people doing it too. That’s really, really valuable, isn’t it?

And then finally that point about the team at Practical Inspiration. I know they are amazing. I get to work with them every day. How lucky is that? It’s a really good demonstration of what you were saying earlier about where tech people go, in that there are tools that facilitate this, but it’s not the key thing.

The key thing is the attitude and the relationships, but then we have things like Slack and we have, sort of good tools that support it. So, yes, so interesting.

Deb Mashek: Yes, oh, and one other thing about the campfire that I have found really valuable is, you know, when I went to my first session, I had no clue what I was doing. And now, I’ve been there for a year and I realize I do have perspectives that I’m able to share. And so, A – it feels really good to be able to contribute to somebody else’s success.

But B – it’s also a nice indication that I actually have experienced growth. So, you know, that I’ve developed as a writer, as a professional because of that group. So that’s one of the, I guess the other perks of being involved in that.

Alison Jones: It’s a really nice example as well of how your identity in an interaction and a relationship can change over time as well, isn’t it? That sometimes you are the person receiving the advice, the other times you’re the person giving the advice, and both of those are really, really valuable to you as a person.

Deb Mashek: Yes, one of the theoretical models that I did all of my research under as an academic is the self expansion model. And the idea is that we come to take on the resources, the perspectives, and the identities of the people that we are in relationship with. And that has been so salient as I’ve gone through the writing process, even words like not feeling great about the word author at first, and kind of tripping over that or choking on it as it would come out on my mouth and now like, oh yes, no, I’m an author and it’s because of my relationship with this text that I’ve been working on and, you know, through the relationships with others in the campfire where we’re all doing that identity to development thing in parallel and it’s, it’s been very expansive in terms of my understanding of myself and my role in this world.

Alison Jones: That’s wonderful, it’s really interesting to hear your perspective on it as somebody who’s been there regularly. Love that. And let’s talk about the fun thing, because if you are watching this on YouTube people, you might have spotted something on Deb’s microphone. She’s pointing to it now,. For those that are listening, most people listening on audio, so you’re going to have to talk them through Snap there.

Deb Mashek: Yes, you know, when you see the cover of the book, so the name Collabor(h)ate, I really wanted to pick up on that, the frustration that people feel when collaborating. But I was, you know, in the market research, some people love the title and some people hated the title. They’re like, you can’t use the word hate. And so I was looking for a way to soften it a little bit because I think it’s important to give voice to that silent H and talk about the hard stuff so that we can actually figure out a better pathway forward. But I was like, how can I soften this? And we had the idea of using these little binder clips, I don’t know if there are five or six of them, I don’t have a copy of the book in front of me. Five or six of them kind of giving a high five. And then somewhere along the line we had the idea of like, let’s put googly eyes on them. So there are googly-eyed binder clips giving each other a high five on the cover of the book.

And then I started to actually create little binder clips and put them around my house. So that’s what you’re seeing here. And now they’re going out for photo adventures. So I have one on my purse at all times. So the other day I was, you know, cruising around New York and I was like, if there’s a pizzeria Snap needs a photo with a piece of pizza.

You know, it’s like I’m trying to grab these photos and the idea is that it’s just a way of starting to have fun, like you said with the ideas in the book. And, I took Snap to my kiddos little league game and took a picture of that ball team working and they were collaborators.

And it gives me a kind of a platform to think through where I’m seeing and experiencing collaboration out the real world. And it gives kind of a mechanism for giving voice to that.

Alison Jones: And it’s so cute, also, visually in terms of social media fodder and so on, you can’t scroll past Snap with his googly eyes in front of a bunch of kids, can you?

Deb Mashek: So cute.

Alison Jones: And would you like to tell us about the handbag Deb?

Deb Mashek: Oh my gosh. So I think I’m a glutton for positive reinforcement, so I was the kid who loved the sticker charts at school. I have a Win Wall up on, you know, around here in the office where every post-it note represents something I did this week to advance my goals. I also positive reinforce myself when I submitted the final manuscript.

I found a handbag that is in the shape of a binder clip and I bought big googly eyes for it so I can walk around with copies of the book in it and give them to people who ask about it.

Alison Jones: It’s just genius. Yes, so much fun. I actually think you reverse engineered the whole strategy having seen the binder clip bag, myself. But there you go.

Deb Mashek: I was just giddy when that showed up, I’m like, oh my gosh, it’s so pretty.

Alison Jones: And Snap is also a star of TikTok, is he not?

Deb Mashek: Yes, so I, in March, started to do TikTok and you know, I look at your TikTok and you have grown it so brilliantly really quickly. Mine is not growing particularly quickly, but I’m having so much fun doing stop motion animation with this silly binder clip. So the other day I was at the laundromat doing the big bulky wash where you need to wash the comforters and the big towels and the, I don’t know, the big rugs, and this laundromat had the most beautiful blue folding tables and there were two layers. There’s like the layer you put your folded stuff on and the layer you could put your not folded stuff on. And I got so excited because I’m thinking this is the perfect place to do a stop motion video. So I put my little muffin from Dunkin’ Donuts on the table and I start filming Snap and Snap’s friend, doesn’t have a name. And they’re like eating away at the muffin. And it says something like, you know, the big jobs require great collaborators, or something like that.

Alison Jones: I saw that one. I loved it

Deb Mashek: So much fun to go to the laundromat and mix up who knew that this is something I was going to be become fascinated by. So, more self expansion

Alison Jones: I’m going to put the link to your TikTok on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com, along with the transcript of this conversation and the other links, because you have to go and see this. I don’t understand why people are watching me read things out of business books and not watching Snap’s stop motion animation because it’s so much more fun.

Right, I’m going to ask you… I kind of want, so many questions I want to ask you.

I want to ask you for your best tip for a new author. I also want to ask you about the whole kind of relationship science, fun writing, kind of mash up. So do you know what, it’s yours, Deb, you tell us the thing that you think will be most useful for the people listening now.

Deb Mashek: Oh gosh, okay, so the tip that comes to mind is the one that made it possible for me to get to yes, with the whole idea of writing a business book in the first place. And that’s that… and you know this one, because this is why I joined the 10 day book proposal challenge. I didn’t know if I wanted to write a business book. I didn’t know if I had an idea. I didn’t know if it was a worthy idea or it was like, felt half baked. And then it dawned on me that saying yes to writing a book proposal is not the same as saying yes to writing a business book. And so I thought I could dedicate 10 days to this, you know, see what happens with the idea, and then choose if I want to move it forward, choose how I want to move it forward.

And so the idea that, you know, we sometimes talk about slippery slopes. It’s also just nice to know your off-ramps. Like, if I didn’t like it, who cares? So I spent 10 days, developed an idea. Well, it turns out that after those 10 days I was vibrating with excitement about the idea, about Practical Inspiration, about you, you know?

And so it was so easy for me to then go from there and be like, oh, I can see I don’t need to know how to do all of this. There are people there who can teach that part to me. What I need to know is that I’m excited about it and I want to invest in the time and the energy to actually do this and do it well. So that whole idea of like just say yes to one step at a time, you can reverse, you can stop at any point if it’s not feeling great. So saying yes to one thing is not saying yes to everything. So I think that’s important.

The other piece of advice comes from Liane Davey, who I’m such a fan girl of hers, but I had a conversation with her and this is actually something you talk about in This Book Means Business book. Also, which is, she said, write in granny squares, so you know, Afghans, those granny square Afghans where it’s just like a bunch of squares and you rearrange them. She said, everything you write, whether it’s a LinkedIn post or I write for Psychology Today, so maybe it’s a Psychology Today post.

Think of those as individual granny squares that later you can go spread out on the table, rearrange them, move them around, throw some out, decide some actually belong in another Afghan, but it’s a modular approach to developing concepts, that really resonated with me as somebody who I basically wrote with sticky notes and a really bizarre Excel file called Booketybookbookbook where that had, you know, nine different versions of my table of contents, that had the list of all the people I wanted to interview. The timeline, like everything’s in a freaking Excel sheet, which I don’t think most people probably think of as like the way that you’re supposed to write, but it helped me with that modularity, with developing the granny square quilt.

Alison Jones: Booketybookbookbook.xls.


Deb Mashek: Yes, I know. yes, I named it like, right. I think I named it in one of the days of the book proposal challenge where you have to put together the table of contents.

Yes, it’s like I don’t want to make this feel too heavy. Like it’s the table of contents. It’s a sandbox, it’s a place to play. And then, that’s where I ended up with Booketybookbookbook. And I still have it. It’s open every single day on my computer.

Alison Jones: I’m so glad you didn’t pitch that as the actual title though.

Deb Mashek: I, yes, that would be hard to market, right?

Alison Jones: Brilliant. And I love the idea of the off ramp as well. That’s such a great phrase, isn’t it? You don’t, by joining the proposal challenge, by taking it that first step, you are not signing your life away. You are just saying, this is interesting. Let’s take it one step further and see if it’s got legs.

Deb Mashek: Well, and there is a beautiful parallel to all of our relationships in the world too. Like whether it’s dating or a job, it’s saying, I’m interested enough in what I’m seeing thus far to explore a little bit more deeply. So going on a first date or you know, whether it’s going on a first date or putting up your online dating profile, you’re not now married. So it’s like there’s a whole bunch of steps between here and there, and you get to decide whether or not you’re going to take those steps. It’s a very empowering approach to this whole idea of commitment.

Alison Jones: Love it.

And I always ask my guests, you know this, to recommend well, it doesn’t have to be a business book, but you know, a book that they think that people listening to this podcast would find useful or beneficial. So what would you like to recommend?

Deb Mashek: Oh gosh, so I’m going to start with the Parable of Stone Soup which is about these… it exists in a number of cultures, but the idea is that there are these weary travelers who are desperate for some food, and they go to this village, and of course everyone in the village is like, oh, I don’t have anything. I don’t have anything. But then the traveler says, you know, well, I have this amazing recipe, but all we need would be a big pot, some water, and one amazing stone and puts it in there, the water boils, and then says, well the soup is going to be great as is but if anyone has like just one carrot, one carrot, they could pitch into the soup, it’s going to be even more amazing. And then it escalates from there. And then there’s like, how about anyone have a half a cabbage? Does anyone happen to have an onion? And before you know it, everybody’s pitched in a little bit to create this magnificent soup.

There’s a charlatan in the story, so it’s not a perfect parallel to how to collaborate well at work. Like there’s nobody trying to be shady, I hope. But this idea that if we all pitch in, amazing things can happen. So I love that just as a parable to be holding in mind as we navigate our work worlds.

The other two I’ll recommend is your This Book Means Business. It was such a valuable launch point for me, as I said on this path.

And the second one is Liane Davey’s The Good Fight, which is about the role of constructive conflict in workplace settings, and that you want conflict. It’s through conflict that we create appropriate tension to make really amazing decisions and how we do conflict. If we do conflict well, it benefits us as individuals and certainly our organization.

So those are my three recommendations to your question for one.

Alison Jones: Amazing. Inflation, it’s fine. And…

Deb Mashek: I know, right?

Alison Jones: …it’s also, it’s such a valuable point, isn’t it that collaborating well doesn’t necessarily just mean getting along with everybody all of the time. It doesn’t mean agreeing all the time. You can collaborate and have conflict and manage that well, and come out the other side, sort of with a better solution.

Deb Mashek: In fact, if you are, if you’re preferencing just all that kumbaya, everything feels great, and you’re not actually having the tough conversations, you’re undercutting the quality of what you could be doing, the potential of what you need to be doing to help the world and its big problems.

Alison Jones: I’m nodding like I’m totally on board with that, as as a pathological conflict avoider, actually I need to go back and play this to myself pretty much every day, but yes, yes, yes, yes to all of that. Brilliant.

Deb Mashek: Yes, yes.

Alison Jones: Deb, if people want to find out more about Collabor(h)ate, more about you and the work that you do, where should they go?

Deb Mashek: Yes, I was thinking about what’s the one place I would love people to go and it is collaborhate.com and by the way, I was giddy the day I found that that url was still available. So collaborhate.com and there you can download a lot of free resources. I’m all about giving as much away as I possibly can. So there are tons of handouts and articles and things like that that you can use right away.

While there, you can also find links to all of my social media feeds. I would love, I love connecting with people in case that hasn’t become obvious yet. And you can also sign up for my, I have a once monthly, one single tip to improve your workplace collaboration. So if you’d like to sign up for that, to get it delivered directly to your inbox that’s all available again at collaborhate.com

Alison Jones: And I can vouch for the quality of those freebies as well. And I have to say, you know, often when I’m talking to people, they might be in quite a deep niche and I’m sort of, you know, they’re giving the url, but I know it’s only a bit of interest to a fairly small proportion of people. You know, people, if you don’t need to collaborate, you know, check you’re still breathing.

So everybody listening is going to get some benefit from those, which is really exciting.

Deb Mashek: Yes, one of the cool data points from the study is that three quarters of the sample, they’re spending over three hours a day collaborating. So we spend a lot of time trying to do this, and oh my gosh, if it’s not going well, we’re banging in our heads against the wall and it’s so frustrating.

And our mental health suffers. Our job satisfaction suffers. The quality of our work suffers. So this stuff is worth investing in for your wellbeing and for the potential of the team.

Alison Jones: Yes, and it doesn’t have to be like that.

Deb Mashek: It doesn’t have to be like that. We can do better.

Alison Jones: We can do better. Brilliant.

Deb, what a joy to talk to you. Thank you so much for everything. For the stuff about the collaboration and the writing and the fun, all of it. Thank you,

Deb Mashek: Thank you for everything. It’s been great to be a collaborator on this journey with you.

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