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How to Spot Red Flags In Your Potential Collaboration 

In the realm of creative collaboration, the line between a fruitful and a frustrating partnership can be thinner than a pencil stroke across a blank canvas. 

How can you ensure you’re on the right side? And how do you recognize someone who lacks a collaborative mindset? Sometimes you won’t find out until you’re working with them, but there are several ways to identify red flags in potential collaborators. 

None of them are perfect indicators — we all occasionally do these things in conversation. They become red flags when they show up as a pattern of behavior.

Identifying Red Flags

Someone who talks over you or interrupts you in mid-sentence. There’s always some of this when the conversation gets excited, especially in louder environments where ambient noise makes it harder to catch the pauses that indicate someone has finished talking (or when Zoom lags). But if it happens repeatedly, be aware that this potential collaborator might be a steamroller rather than someone who rolls along with his partner’s ideas.

Someone who one-ups your ideas. It can be hard to tell the difference between this and someone who’s genuinely saying yes, and … to your idea. But if you feel like they’re not building on your idea so much as trying to take it in a completely different direction — which is a way of saying no without actually saying no — you might be talking to someone who’s uncomfortable with conflict or who struggles to work with other people’s ideas.

Someone who’s overly focused on the “right” way to do things. It’s great to look for best practices, and it is important to know what works for you, but there isn’t one right way to do anything, there’s just what’s right for you and your partner. 

Excessive focus on the right way suggests that your potential collaborator might not have the mental flexibility required by their role, and if you take them on as a partner, you might be the one who’s always adapting to their way of thinking.

Someone who trash talks other people they’ve worked with in the past. People do have legitimate reasons for falling out, but if your potential collaborator is willing to rake their former partner over the coals in confidence with you, there’s an excellent chance that at some point they’ll be doing the same thing to you in the future. 

When a potential collaborator discusses a partnership that didn’t work out, look for some sign that they take responsibility for their role in the relationship’s failure, or that they’ve given their former partner credit for the things they did right. 

Someone who’s coming from a place of victimhood. This person might spend a lot of time talking about their personal drama, blame others for dragging them down, or complain constantly about how unfair the industry is. Or they might be brutally self-critical. Maybe they joke a lot about their bad luck or how Murphy’s Law is in charge of their life. 

All of these are a sign of someone with self-worth issues that will drag your collaboration down. You won’t be able to fix this person, no matter how much sympathy and empathy you offer them, because serious self-worth issues are rooted in trauma and require therapeutic intervention. 

We’re not talking about garden-variety depression or anxiety or self-effacing humor, or the low-level imposter syndrome that most creatives wrestle with from time to time. But how can you tell the difference? 

If the person’s self-directed negativity intensifies when you encourage or sympathize with them, or if they refuse offers of help with something they’re complaining about being unable to fix themselves, there’s a good chance that they have issues to work out before they’ll have anything to offer a healthy collaboration.

Someone who’s already making plans for your collaboration before you’ve agreed to anything. This is the equivalent of saying “I love you” and wanting to get engaged on the first date. Collaboration isn’t just about wanting to work together: even best friends might not be compatible when it comes to working style or creative process. 

Maybe this person just likes you a lot and is eager to get started, and enthusiasm is good. But if they get pushy or clingy when you try to slow things down, watch out.

Someone who uses questions to criticize your ideas or pretends not to understand when you suggest something they don’t like. This can be a subtle red flag, but your gut instincts are usually right when it comes to identifying those questions as a form of resistance, so listen to them.

Someone who agrees with everything you say. At first, it can be hard to tell the difference between a yes-man and a soul mate. If you find yourself talking to someone who seems to share your opinions on multiple fronts, dig a little deeper. 

What brought them to that opinion? Do they think it’s true all the time, or are there some situations where it doesn’t apply? If they’re not willing to disagree with you on anything or they can’t explain why they think that way, you might be talking to someone who’s uncomfortable with conflict, who’s developed some passive-aggressive tendencies, or who doesn’t feel comfortable being themselves. 

If you meet a collaborator who has one or two of these red flags but you also have a lot of chemistry with them, is it worth giving them a shot? That’s a judgment call.

Do they seem to be aware of their red flag behaviors? If you call them on something, are they willing to change their behavior? If they show some self-awareness, it might be worth doing a test project to see if it’s you’re a good match and if the red flags can be addressed within the partnership.

And if you recognize some of these red flags in your own behavior, are you willing to do the emotional work of figuring out why you do these things and change your own behavior?

If your answer is yes, the next article in this series will help …

See you next Wednesday!