How to collaborate with someone who is super-territorial


The troll under the bridge is, literally and figuratively, a collaboration roadblock. He doesn’t care what you do on your own time, but anything that comes near his gate is going to be held up until the toll is paid. Even worse, sometimes there is no toll, just an endless series of deflections, delays, and barriers.

Collaboration is too important for turf war interference. Understand the territorial mindset and you can find a way not just to avoid the toll but to include the troll in your plans. Start by understanding that territory isn’t chosen by accident or chance—there are some very strong, primal motives that guide a territorial mindset, and they need to be carefully unraveled.

“A territorial person, or one who shifts into that mode, is thinking about power, control, influence, and status,” says Michael Lee Stallard, president of E Pluribus Partners.

Toll ahead: how to spot the territorial collabohater

The good news is that you don’t have to work very hard to spot a territorial type. They’re the ones telling you to get off their lawns.

We kid. (A little.) Although the territorial can be aggressive about defending what they see as theirs, the signs can be much more subtle. The signs aren’t always overtly negative. The very act of carving out a corner of the universe and protecting it reflects a passion for excellence and a strong tendency to take ownership.

“Taking ownership is a positive trait, it’s what we want people to do, but when taken to an extreme, it can be seen as territorial,” says Matt Poepsel, VP of product management at PI Worldwide.

And those extremes are where the problems occur. Territorial types can be resistant to change—any change—because they believe defending the status quo and defending their turf are one and the same. They can be reluctant to delegate, share, and cede authority for fear of appearing less than indispensable.

How to work with the territorial

Although territorial drives can manifest themselves in subtle ways, often this collabohater type will be very upfront about their resistance, and lay out in no uncertain terms what their boundaries for collaboration will be. The trick, as in dealing with any collabohater, is not to take “no” for an answer, but also to find the right path to “yes.” That begins with recognizing that every stone wall protects a weakness. That weakness is typically one driven by fear—the fear of losing status, authority, and position.

“It helps to understand that typically behind the facade of strength they project lies insecurity,” Stallard says.

Fear of change is also a paramount concern for the territorial. “If someone is behaving territorially, you need to get them information about their role and why it’s changing, and why collaboration is important,” Poepsel says.

Don’t micromanage the territorial. Be proactive about recognizing and acknowledging that they are experts in their domain, without going so far as to endorse their excessive ownership. Territorial types are impressed by competence and dedication, two characteristics they prize in themselves. Take proactive steps to demonstrate those traits, and smoother collaboration will follow.

“Getting their cooperation in short order is not easy, so it’s wise to take the initiative and connect with them,” Stallard says. “They value people doing what’s right and being responsive and reliable.”

Soup for the troll under the bridge

Feeling a bit anxious about your own bailiwick? It’s very easy to slip from being a dedicated team player to an obsessive border guard. If you’re worried that your own tendencies have strayed towards the territorial, ask yourself when you last praised and recognized a collaborator. If it’s been so long that you can’t quite remember, you have probably slipped into a bridge-troll mask. Start finding ways to recognize competence and dedication in others. Giving and receiving praise is an excellent elixir against territorial behavior.

“It’s good to be generous about giving credit,” Stallard says.

Your fellow collaborators and leaders may not fully understand your need to understand how tasks, projects, and changes affect the things you care very deeply about. Start being open about communicating those needs.

“Trust-building with the territorial starts with being very transparent about motives and rationales,” says Michael Sanger, consultant with Hogan Assessment Systems. “They may have a need to hear the rationale but nobody is sharing it with them.”

Territorial types tend to let doubts about the validity of change and outside interference guide too much of their thinking. “Territorial behavior is rooted in deeply ingrained skepticism,” Sanger says.

This skepticism, once validated, leads to grudges, which the territorial have a particularly hard time letting go of. Find ways to move past old offenses—to forgive unpaid tolls, if you will—and let your collaborators help you create a shared vision.

Post by Jason Compton

Jason Compton is a writer with over 15 years of experience covering marketing, sales, and service. Based in Madison, WI, he is a regular contributor to Direct Marketing News, previously served as executive editor of CRM Magazine, and has been published in over 50 outlets.