All Together Now: How to Get Workplace Collaboration Right

Ange Friesen
June 11, 2019

Workplace collaboration is so fundamental to success that it’s been put at the top of the list of skills children need to develop to prepare for the working world, especially if they’re going to “become the thinkers and entrepreneurs of tomorrow."

“For the first time in our memory business leaders who think about their requirements for employees and child psychologists are talking the same language and looking for the same benchmarks,” say Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, authors of Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children.

Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek list collaboration alongside communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation, and confidence as the “Six C’s” kids need to learn. But what to do when much of contemporary workforce was educated at a time when the focus was still on the three R’s, and not the six C’s?

Real workplace collaboration isn’t always easy, even for adults—or maybe especially for adults. Egos can get in the way, along with competing goals and communication styles, interpersonal issues, and other challenges to productive teamwork. But it’s worth learning to do well at any age.

Workplace collaboration—when it’s done right—means better workflows, stronger relationships, and projects that are improved by contributions from diverse perspectives and skillsets. Here’s how to cultivate collaboration that works:

Think about what workplace collaboration is, and what it isn’t

Workplace collaboration is all about working together productively. If collaboration doesn’t lead you to the best product possible, it’s not really collaboration. A team of people who are incredibly nice to one another, but are also afraid to be honest, can be just as damaging to a project as a group where people are in constant conflict.

Jane Park, Chief Executive of Julep, puts it this way: “It’s not about giving up control and saying, hey, whatever everybody wants… Collaboration isn’t consensus. It’s deliberate, and it’s a way of letting people in that is genuine but still very results-focused. It’s something I learned as a consultant—if there’s a faster path, I want to take it, and often you find the faster path by asking somebody else. It’s not about sitting in a room and trying to figure it out yourself.”

Be clear about your goal(s)

Workplace collaboration can go sideways even if everyone involved has the best intentions. One major reason: people are working against each other without even knowing it. Be clear to define your goals at the outset of any project.

For day-to-day workplace collaboration, it’s key that companies have clearly defined, organization-wide goals (and that everyone actually knows what they are). This will mean that people from different departments—who will often have very different objectives—can also easily recognize and contribute to their ultimate shared objective.

Hire well

On the subject of fostering collaboration, Apple CEO Tim Cook highlights the importance of hiring the right team: “Look for people that are not political, people that are not bureaucrats. People that really don’t care who gets credit… You look for people who appreciate different points of view. You look for people that care enough that they have an idea at 11 at night and they want to call and talk to you about it.”

And while workplace collaboration is a skill to prioritize when you look at job candidates, shifting your hiring process to a collaborative model can be a game changer in and of itself. Collaborative hiring includes employees in the interview process, connecting them with candidates and including their input when coming to a decision.

William Vanderbloemen highlights a few of the reasons that collaborative hiring work in a 2016 article for Forbes. At the top of his list is this: “Hiring collaboratively… drastically decreases the risk of bad hires and ensures that any new hire will fit in well with the team culture. Hiring collaboratively will also remind your current team of the incredible value added by a quality new hire.”

Create diverse teams

Researchers at the University of Michigan found that teams made up exclusively of highly skilled members performed worse than teams with varying skills and levels and knowledge when given a complex problem.

Why? Because diverse perspectives lead to a diversity of ideas, with team members asking new questions and seeing opportunities that a group of similar people might not.

Balance ambition, creativity, openness to experience, and conscientiousness

These four personality traits can have an incredible impact on a team’s performance. A team where any one of them dominates can run itself right into the ground.

Speaking of dominance, a team with too many highly ambitious people can be a breeding ground for misplaced competition. Team members could compete with one another, rather than actual competitors. A team that’s high on creativity and openness to experience will have great ideas, but might have trouble turning any of them into reality. An overly conscientious team might get caught up doing the fairest thing, rather than choosing the best way forward.

Make sure to have people that can bring the best of each personality type to any given project. Your outcome measurements will thank you.

Take breaks together

The Swedish word fika essentially means coffee break, but really it’s so much more. Coffee (and probably a delicious treat) is a part of things, but so is conversation and a sense of connection that’s missing from many North American offices. This is how it works: twice a day, every day, everyone in the office takes a break. At the same time. Together.

Let that idea settle in. Imagine the sense of togetherness and collaboration this kind of practice could inspire.

Viveka Adelsward, a Swedish professor, describes what happens during fika, “We meet under informal circumstances, exchange information and comment on what’s happening. The hierarchy breaks down… we’re all in it together regardless of power and position.” Adelsward notes that taking breaks actually increases productivity, even in a country where only 1% of employees work overtime.

Conversations over fika cover everything from current events to work projects. People have the chance to share insights across departments, even if they never formally work together. “We get a chance to blow the dust off our brains, fill them with inspiration from others, and have an opportunity to test our thoughts and ideas.”

Even if you aren’t quite ready to go full fika, the impact of creating strong social relationships on overall workplace collaboration cannot be underestimated. A Harvard Business Review report found that the most “productive and innovative” complex collaborative teams had something in common: “In every case the company’s top executives had invested significantly in building and maintaining social relationships throughout the organization.”

Cultivating true workplace collaboration is not one-time deal. To work together well, companies must develop patterns of working and relating that echo through the organization. Find the right people, and put them together with a purpose—or let them relax—to let the magic happen. Repeat as needed.

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