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The Great Collaborator

A frequent comment I have heard over the past eight weeks is “since the onset of the pandemic, we have collaborated more than ever before”. Why don’t we practice workplace collaboration like this more easily? And how do we keep the gains we have made when the pandemic recedes?

Clearly there are powerful forces at work that impede workplace collaboration. First, much like our stone-age ancestors, as humans we are wired to band together into relatively small communities where we remain remarkably territorial. You might have heard of the ‘rule of 150’ – a social science finding that 150 is the approximate number of people we can manage effectively and include in our close social network. It challenges our comfort zone to step outside of these small territorial communities. Given the vast sizes of today’s enterprises, business units, divisions, etc., it is critical that we overcome our reluctance to working outside of these artificial walls.

A second and equally powerful inhibitor is psychological in nature. As an avid chess player, I am constantly amazed how ‘tunnel vision’ blinds you to alternative moves. Even when you considered options during the game, later review reveals that better moves were available. Only in retrospect do these moves seem ‘obvious’. Single-mindedness narrows our vision and leads us down paths that are hard to turn from. Similarly, at work there is a myopia that occurs based on our past experiences and current expectations. We literally don’t see better choices that could have fostered greater collaboration at workplace.

How do we overcome territoriality and our blinders to become consistent collaborators? In chess, grandmasters learn to ask themselves a series of questions before they make critical moves. This habit opens sightlines to previously unseen choices:

  • Am I in danger of being checked?
  • Do I have any hanging pieces with no defenders?
  • Do I have all of my pieces playing an active role?

Similarly, if we develop the habit of self-reflection at work, we can become masters of collaboration. Here are a series of questions that you can ask yourself to improve your collaboration skills (Francesca Gino, Harvard). Rate yourself on a scale of 1 – 10 on each of the four dimensions. Do this one time per week for 8 weeks (reviewing specific instances) and I promise you will see improvement:

Am I making goals and team member roles clear?

To build a culture of collaboration in the workplace, everyone needs to know the goals and their role in the effort. As a leader, it is your responsibility to make goals crystal clear, so that everyone knows where we are headed and what success looks like. Great leaders also reinforce my individual role in the effort – explaining how what I do makes a difference in accomplishing the goal. These communication efforts are constant and wall-to-wall. They also look for opportunities to reinforce behaviors that support workplace collaboration, and they nonjudgmentally point out how people can be better collaborators. They build a culture where feedback is freely given and non-defensively received, because what matters most is everyone doing their part to accomplish the goal.

Am I creating a culture of respect?

Everyone’s contribution is valued when there is a culture of respect. We start with the assumption that people are competent and capable in performing their jobs. If I start with this assumption, then when someone disagrees with me, I assume the difference is not due to ignorance but to different experiences. Great leaders are curious about these differences: ’I know Helen (she is a capable and competent person), I wonder why she sees things so differently?’ Respect is also demonstrated by not judging too quickly and shutting down people’s ideas (e.g., ’that won’t’ work because…’). Rather, respect leads to the power of addition, which improves ideas (e.g., that might work, and we could…”).

Am I really listening to what others have to say?

True collaboration is impossible if I am not really listening or receptive to what others have to say. I am failing as a leader if the reason that I am listening is so that I can use the information to prove that I am ‘right’ and they are ‘wrong’. When we fully listen, we acknowledge what we have heard (e.g., ’I understand your point of view’). We also express gratitude for people sharing their opinions (e.g., ’thanks for your ideas!’) Great collaborative leaders are curious and empathic and ask questions. They don’t worry about showing how smart they are, but freely solicit and explore the wisdom of the team. They give people permission to participate and then demonstrate that they have heard and considered their input.

Do I demonstrate humility and give space for others to demonstrate their expertise?

Great collaborators display a degree of humility when it comes to leading the team. They are good at recognizing when to lead and when to follow. They don’t need all the credit and can step aside to let another team member have the spotlight even if they don’t own the “formal authority”. They don’t feel the need to constantly ‘prove’ they are in charge, and they can put their own expertise aside for others who are less experienced or knowledgeable. These actions build people’s confidence and encourage initiative and further collaboration. Great collaborative leaders also demonstrate humility in their openness to learning – they can say “I don’t know” and seek additional information. They are constant learners.

We all know the value of collaboration in getting important things done, but experience teaches us that it is hard and not easily achieved. It is not enough to profess to be collaborative or to pronounce it as one of your values. Collaboration is based on human-to-human interaction, and it is the people we work with who will be the most important judges of our mastery of these skills. Let’s strive to up our game so that we continue to collaborate more than ever before, even when the pandemic ends!

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Dr. Brandt obtained his Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi and spent 10 years working in private practice and local government before joining TalentQuest in 1996. He currently serves as Executive Vice President at TalentQuest, where he specializes in executive coaching.

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