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In today’s hyperconnected world, organizations are learning that employees can accomplish far more together than they can alone.
Just as ant collectives marshal their forces for the common good,
organizations can flourish if they encourage their employees to forge
strong bonds and create successful collaborations.
As business becomes more globalized and the world becomes more
interconnected, the prevailing paradigm is a shift away from cutthroat
competition and toward collaboration. At many companies, working on
teams has evolved during the past five years from a “nice to have” to a
“need to have,” says Brian Kropp, managing director at the Corporate Executive Board Co. (CEB).
Today, employers simply must use collaborative teams, he says, noting
that “It’s just how work gets done.” In fact, organizations with
effective collaborators saw revenue increase about 5 percent more than
those without them between 2012 and 2013, according to Kropp.
In a 2013 survey of more than 23,000 workers by CEB, two-thirds of
employees reported that their work over the past three years required
increased collaboration. The survey report, Breakthrough Performance in the New Work Environment,
also showed that 57 percent of respondents did more work with those in
other geographic locations and 60 percent worked with at least 10 people
CEB also found that nearly three-quarters of employees want to
collaborate, but they’re impeded by the way their organization is
structured or run—whether because of performance management systems that
don’t reward collaboration, poor communication regarding which projects
employees should collaborate on or conflicting organizational goals.
As companies are discovering, it takes time and planning to harness the power of teamwork.
Building a Foundation
As a first step, business leaders must demonstrate that they value
collaboration and must establish the conditions needed for it to
flourish, says Eduardo Salas, a psychology professor at the University
of Central Florida in Orlando.
That includes creating a culture of respect, trust and tolerance for
divergent opinions. In successful teams, members are motivated to find
the best solution for the task at hand and everyone feels like their
ideas are taken into account, says Kim Ruyle, president of Inventive Talent Consulting LLC in
Miami. “[High-functioning teams] have the ability to make it safe to
disagree and safe to stand alone,” Ruyle says. In addition, “members
genuinely like each other.”
Indeed, forging solid relationships is one of the keys to successful
workplace collaborations, says Margaret Heffernan, entrepreneur and
author of A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better Than the Competition (PublicAffairs,
2014). Research has shown that team members’ education levels, IQs and
years of experience don’t matter when it comes to creating productive
teams. What’s important is how prepared people are to help one another.
“If you really want high levels of helpfulness that make an impact on
the bottom line, you have to realize people only help people they know,”
That familiarity doesn’t happen spontaneously. Successful collaboration
requires the deliberate use of time and resources to facilitate the
building of what Heffernan calls “social capital,” or the bonds between
people that foster trust, resilience and risk-taking.
Teams must also have a clear view of their goal as well as constant
communication and transparency, says Anne Donovan, human capital
transformation leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). Feedback, whether good or bad, must be immediate; otherwise, “people feel like they’re blindsided,” she says.
A team’s success often comes down to the choice of team leader. “The
leader makes or breaks the team,” Salas says. Leaders create the
internal climate and ensure that things are done in the best interests
of the team rather than of any one individual.
“It takes a lot of emotional intelligence and self-awareness” to lead a team,
According to Eduardo Salas, a psychology professor at the University of
Central Florida, the following are signs of effective teams:
Conditions—Leadership signals that teamwork matters;
policies and incentives support teamwork; teams have the resources they
need; good performance is recognized and reinforced.
Cooperation—Members like being on teams, trust each other and contribute.
Coordination—Good teams have mutual support, adaptability and flexibility.
Communication—Protocols are in place to exchange information; communication is precise, timely and clear.
Cognition—Team members share an understanding of what they need to do; roles are clear.
Coaching—Leaders promote teamwork, care about team members, and set expectations and ground rules.
Conflict—Good teams provide psychological safety to deal with conflict.
Ruyle says. Leaders must show that they don’t take themselves too
seriously and can admit to making mistakes. “There’s no fear of
embarrassment or threat to the ego,” he explains.
The leader also divvies up roles and responsibilities. Important tasks
shouldn’t automatically be given to members with the most experience but
rather could be used to develop others’ skills.
While all members play a part in a team’s success, the leader has
ultimate accountability. Members should feel like their views have been
heard, but ultimately “the team leader has to be able to make the call,”
Who’s on the Team
While “a lot of people focus on management qualities to improve
[organizational] performance, the qualities of the people they’re
working with are just as important,” Kropp says.
CEB found that organizations should focus on what it calls “enterprise
contributors,” whose “impact on the business is bigger than their job
description” might suggest, Kropp says.
These types of employees do four things differently. They:
• Prioritize work by the contribution it can make to the organization.
• Understand peers’ workflow, objectives and challenges.
• Understand the context that surrounds organizational decisions and operations.
• Identify problems and initiate necessary changes.
Finding employees who already have these skills can be like finding a
needle in a haystack, so Kropp recommends screening out for team
assignments those who are unable to collaborate and teaching
collaboration skills to those who have potential. Rather than sending
each individual to training, send the entire team. “Think how you can
develop the group together,” he advises.
Learning from Millennials
Collaboration is a skill that is already familiar to the members of the
Millennial generation, who are the future of the workplace. “It’s a
generation that has always been in teams growing up,” both in the
classroom and through participation in athletics and extracurricular
activities, says PJ Neal, senior product manager at Harvard Business
A PwC report released last year, PwC’s NextGen: A Global Generational Study,
showed that Millennials particularly value a workplace culture that
emphasizes teamwork and a sense of community. It surveyed 44,000
employees around the globe, including Millennials (those born between
1980 and 1995), as well as other generations.
The leaders at USAA, a San
Antonio-based company that provides financial services to military
families, have always valued teamwork. But last year they decided to
create a collaborative environment from the moment new employees walk in
the door. In the third quarter of 2013, they initiated a team-based
form of onboarding for certain employees.
In the Combat to Claims program, veterans transitioning out of the
military are hired, trained and start work together. While they
integrate into a larger business team after training is complete, this
approach helps provide an instant in-company network and support
structure to new employees.
“They learn together and bond together and create relationships,” says
Mark Reid, USAA’s executive vice president of human resources.
Reid says retention increased by more than 4 percent after implementing
the initiative. “This is a significant improvement to retention that is
already substantially better than the industry,” he says.
Recently, PwC decided to break down two large practice areas of its
business—assurance and tax—into teams of 100 to 150 people. Those teams
are now the basis for how the company delivers results to clients and
how people are managed, according to Donovan, who co-authored the
Setting up such teams “fits right in to what Millennials tell us they
want in a work environment,” she says. “They’re changing us. We are not
going to change them.” At PwC, the average age of employees is 29.
Millennials’ comfort with technology also can ease collaboration with
team members who are spread out geographically. And this generation
tends to be more accepting of diversity, whether that means working with
folks at other locations, from various cultural backgrounds or of
different sexual orientations. When people are comfortable with such
differences, Neal says, they typically trust one another and thus
perform better on teams.
Managing Cross-Cultural Teams
Between 1990 and today, the number of multinational corporations has
soared from 3,000 to more than 100,000, according to Karie Willyerd,
vice president of learning and social adoption for SuccessFactors, an
Being a member of a cross-cultural team brings challenges and
opportunities. “People from different parts of the world often have
different contacts, knowledge, experience and business practices,” says
Catherine Cramton, professor of management at George Mason University in
Different ways of seeing things can be an opportunity, she notes, but
often people mistakenly believe their way is the right one.
which sells management software to regulated industries, recognizes
that “if the leaders aren’t working well together, no one below will,”
says Sharon Marnien, vice president of human resources at the company.
When Marnien started at Sparta almost three years ago, the company
had a new chief executive officer and, although the organization was
profitable, there was much room for growth.
The company had a culture in which long-term employees socialized
and helped one another, yet integrating new faces onto teams with
longer-term employees was not always easy. So, as new employees came on
board, Sparta leaders would “find or manufacture opportunities for
people to work together on initiatives to force relationships to grow,”
Every quarter, Sparta recognizes a few employees who represent the
company’s core competencies and values, including teamwork. The
employees’ achievements are celebrated with trophies, balloons and
The company also overhauled its office space, creating an open floor
plan. Employees move from desk to desk as needed to support
Over the past three years, the workforce has grown by about 30 percent,
to 260 employees. Now, “There’s more of a welcome for new people and
true respect for the folks that built this place,” Marnien says.
Cramton, who has studied assumptions about project coordination, cites a
software company with operations in Germany and India. Team members
from both countries were given a list of tasks, a schedule and
deadlines. To the Germans, the schedule was sacred, with work aligned to
meet scheduled deadlines. For Indian team members, the schedule didn’t
carry as much weight and the project lead needed to frequently monitor
Experts share the following tips for making cross-cultural teams work:
Monitor progress and project coordination. When issues
arise, team members need to talk them through, learn from them and find
effective ways to deal with them, Cramton says.
Emphasize cross-cultural experience. This goes for
global team members and leaders. “It’s certainly part of the larger
argument for leaders in business to get cross-cultural experience
throughout their careers,” Cramton says.
Educate and train. Leaders at Sparta Systems, a company
with 260 employees that develops and sells quality-management software
to regulated industries, have faced challenges as the company has
globalized. Its Europe and Middle East office is based in Tel Aviv, and
Israeli team members report to U.S. managers. The Israelis tend to be
direct and assertive, which initially offended their U.S. bosses, says
Sharon Marnien, vice president of human resources at the Hamilton,
By conducting Strength Deployment Inventory training with team members,
she helped employees to better understand the motivations that drive
people’s behaviors. “You have to help bridge the differences,” Marnien
says. “They all add value.”
Virtual teams bring extra complexity because members can’t look one
another in the eye or watch each other’s body language. Instead, trust
is based on each person’s expertise, says Arvind Malhotra, professor of
strategy and entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina in
Chapel Hill. People tend to forget about one another’s race or
nationality and focus more on cognitive styles.
Tips for making the most of virtual teams include the following:
Delegate. With these teams, leaders must delegate. Team
members are directly connected with their peers and don’t necessarily
have to go through the team leader, Willyerd says.
Use document sharing. A significant amount of work gets
done this way in a virtual team environment. “Work gets done as and
when it’s suited to the individual,” Willyerd says.
Clarify roles and responsibilities. Virtual team
members may struggle because they typically must report to both their
real boss and their team leader, according to Malhotra. That makes it
important for team members to report to their actual boss on exactly how
they are spending their time.
The Challenge for HR
Change takes time, so it’s not surprising that many organizations are
still not embracing collaboration. “There is still a kind of gut
reaction that if everybody is competing, everybody is doing better,”
a Tampa, Fla.-based law firm, decided to set up “collaboration zones”
at its offices in Tampa and St. Petersburg, Fla., as the leases came up
for renewal. Construction on these zones should be wrapped up by early
The firm, which has about 150 employees, has always relied on
teamwork, but it is now more committed to the idea than ever, with
attorneys from different legal areas collaborating on multiple projects
for the same client, says Marie Tomassi, managing shareholder. “A focus
on holistic teamwork with our client helps them to achieve their goals,”
The collaboration zones, with varying technology and seating
arrangements, acknowledge “the different ways people might come together
as a group and work,” Tomassi says.
With such a setup, Tomassi hopes to get both the social benefits of
more personal interaction and the work value of collaboration. She notes
that the shift also “recognizes how younger generations are coming up
through the educational system,” with its increased emphasis on
In competitive environments, information is seen as power—and it’s
hoarded rather than shared. This can be encouraged by the organization
itself if it uses forced ranking systems and those who rank higher are
Heffernan argues that HR departments should get rid of competitive
bonuses and forced rankings. “I think they’re just an incredible
impediment to collaboration,” she says.
Meanwhile, Kropp urges HR leaders to “pursue strategies and programs that let collaborators win” in terms of pay and promotions.
The best collaborators usually don’t pat themselves on the back, and
senior managers may not see who is making the largest contribution in
collaborative environments—and that’s OK. Kropp suggests that instead of
focusing on a few stars, senior leaders should spend time with a large
number of employees. “That gives them a better sense of who is on the
team, what they do and what they’re good at,” he says.
Whether it’s a multinational team of business professionals that has
just completed an important project or an army of ants that has feasted
on a picnic lunch, collaboration allows everyone to win.
Susan Ladika is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.
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