Collaboration and collaborative leadership are hot topics these days. Most leaders and managers have gotten the memo: Learn to inspire your people to collaborate effectively or watch your company slip into obscurity. Traditional command and control approaches to leadership no longer work, and it’s pretty clear they haven’t for years. As millennials join a predominantly knowledge-based workforce, those outdated approaches simply lead to disengagement.
There’s a big difference, however, between awareness and action – between knowing change is afoot and being part of that change. Creating a culture where collaboration thrives is challenging. It doesn’t happen by itself, or simply by hyping collaboration as a company value. It takes conscious work and investment. Here are the top five reasons most companies fail at collaboration… and what to do about it:
1. No Common Definition
If you ask around at work, you’ll find that collaboration means different things to different people. For some, it’s synonymous with “consensus”, which is often associated with slow and frustrating progress. For others, collaboration is all about online tools, network applications, and social media. And for business managers, it brings to mind vendor relationships, strategic partnerships, or other forms of inter-organizational alliances.
The point is that having different definitions of what it means to collaborate represents a fundamental barrier to collaboration itself. In other words, if we don’t agree on precisely what skills and behaviors are needed in order to collaborate effectively, our efforts will inevitably lead to frustration and unmet expectations.
To do: Develop and agree upon the specific skills and behaviors your team expects when collaborating.
2. Time Pressure
If we had a common definition for collaboration, it would likely include the notion of “alignment.” If working together is like being on a rowing team, then “alignment" is like getting everyone rowing in the same direction and in tight unison.
As it turns out, alignment is a fundamental principle of collaborative work. And getting aligned takes time. Have you heard the expression, “We’re running too fast to take the bicycle off our backs”? In our fast paced business environments, leaders often succumb to time pressures by shortcutting processes that would serve to build alignment.
Classically, they’ll promote those who are decisive and self-confident, i.e., capable of making decisions quickly and under pressure. They’ll bark at their teams, “Don’t bring me problems; bring me solutions!” But those are precisely the habits that tend to undermine organizational alignment, leading in the short term to stress, confusion, damaged relationships and poor results. Over time, investing too little in building alignment inevitably leads to disengagement and turnover.
The old adage holds true: We don’t have time to do it right… but we have time to do it over.
To do: Acknowledge that time pressure undermines effective collaboration, and create opportunities for building the alignment necessary for generating good results.
3. Implicit Process
What happens when we have no agreed upon definition of collaboration, and when we’re under time pressure? “Implicit process” is what happens. Human beings are creatures of habit. All of us, every day, do things in ways that have become second nature. These paths we take are so well worn that they require very little conscious thought or decision-making. We’re on autopilot. But when we’re collaborating with others, our implicit approaches are likely to conflict with other peoples’ approaches.
Take, for example, making a business decision. Commonly, someone will select a decision rule without checking for the group’s support: “Let’s vote to determine which option we’ll choose. Raise your hand if you prefer option A.” Before you know it, the votes are cast and the majority prevails. Too frequently, we don’t know and we don’t check whether those in the minority are willing to support the decision.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the typical business meeting. Observe how often the meeting “process” is left implicit. If we’re lucky, the group will know in advance what it is they’re hoping to accomplish. But how they accomplish their work (the process) is rarely explicitly spelled out, much less agreed upon up front.
To do: Take time to make your group’s processes explicit, and seek support for those processes before using them.
4. Win/Lose Culture
From the earliest age, we’re taught to compete. We’re taught to measure our success relative to the others around us. Whether on the sports field, in the classroom, or on a college entrance exam, we’re evaluated on the basis of comparison.
Inexorably, our training leads us to think and behave with a win/lose mindset: If I compare favorably, I will win and others will lose. Our companies promote this mindset in the way that compensation, bonuses and promotions are offered. Perhaps the most misguided and overused expression of win/lose is found in the yearly performance review with forced ranking. Profit sharing bonuses are awarded on the basis of how employees rank relative to each other. Managers are directed to assess their direct reports, ensuring, for example, that no more than 5% are awarded five out of five stars.
These types of incentives are commonplace, yet they pit employee against employee, team against team, department against department, nearly ensuring environments where gossip, self-promotion and backstabbing are the norm.
To do: Look for practices that reflect and entrench a win/lose mindset; Invent and encourage alternative approaches that support a win/win mindset.
5. Insufficient and Poorly Delivered Feedback
What makes feedback so critical to collaboration? Simply put, we can’t read each other’s minds. And yet, we often act as though mindreading is an expectation in collaborating with others.
Human beings are pretty good at “reading faces.” We can tell when our coworkers are happy, upset, angry, frustrated or sad. Sometimes, we react in ways that are unconscious and counter-productive. But even when we use our face-reading skills compassionately to guide our responses, the results are often not positive. Why is that?
Employing the Golden Rule, we behave in ways that reflect how we would want to be treated under the circumstances. This doesn’t always work because the Golden Rule needs an upgrade. For collaboration to go smoothly, we must strive to “do unto others as they would have us do unto them.” And to make that work, we need to slow down, get curious, ask for and offer explicit feedback.
Ken Blanchard calls feedback “the breakfast of champions.” That’s because it’s hard to do well. It requires training and practice to develop these skills. It also requires us as individuals to manage our egos – no small matter for most of us. But as managers and coworkers get proficient, and as giving and receiving feedback become part of the day-to-day culture, collaboration has the best chance of taking root and growing.
To do: Provide training in the art of giving and receiving feedback, and offer whatever support is necessary to reinforce a culture where feedback becomes routine.
Take Action, Collaboratively...
Collaboration is more than a value. It’s a way of working together that actually works. Share and use this checklist with your co-workers. Assess together where investing in training and support is most likely to make the difference, and then make those investments. Small steps, designed and implemented collaboratively, inspire bigger steps. In time, your team will be dining together at the breakfast table of champions.
Mark Voorsanger is a consultant, speaker and executive coach who has been leading and managing teams for more than 25 years. He is a member of the training team for the Collaborative Operating System, a powerful framework for teams and organizations that need to collaborate effectively.
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