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How Leaders Can Foster Better Collaboration

The best teams work in harmony.

A group of musicians playing instruments on a blue background.

​Effective workplace collaboration is often compared to an orchestra preparing for a performance. Musicians practice with their individual instruments. When they play together, they produce a remarkable sound—surpassing what any individual could do alone.

However, if even one performer fails to rehearse or breaks out in an impromptu solo, the performance is marred. 

In today’s business environment, collaboration and teamwork are essential for organizations to reach their goals. And leaders are the conductors who help a group of talented individuals work in harmony so that they can reach new levels. 

“Business is so fast and so complex now that people who think they can do it all by themselves are sorely mistaken,” says Chester Elton, co-author of The Best Team Wins (Simon & Schuster, 2018) and co-founder of The Culture Works, a consulting and training company based in Pleasant Grove, Utah. “When you don’t have good collaboration, when you don’t have good teamwork, innovation suffers.”

Research shows that organizations with effective collaboration are better able to achieve their goals, including better financial performance. Companies that promote collaborative work are five times likelier to be high-performing than those that don’t, according a 2017 study by the Institute for Corporate Productivity and Rob Cross, an associate professor at Babson College in Babson Park, Mass. 

The Obstacles

Few companies take the time to train leaders or rank-and-file employees on how to work collaboratively. And some commonly held beliefs about teamwork have been proved wrong by researchers. For example, it’s not enough to simply put your top performers (or the people with the most degrees) in a room together.

In a five-year Google analysis called Project Aristotle, researchers studied 18 Google teams and found that “what really mattered was less about who is on the team and more about how the team worked together.” They found the most important factor was psychological safety.

“The companies that do it well are those that create a safe place for innovation, a safe place for people to talk about issues in the workplace,” Elton says. They can ask questions, discuss problems or admit mistakes without fear of embarrassment or punishment. 

While many business leaders say they want more collaboration, progress is stalled by conflicting organizational goals, corporate silos that impede access to information and performance management systems that don’t reward teamwork.

“We sometimes inadvertently set up conflicting priorities, conflicting goals and conflicting measures between different individuals or groups of people working on the same project,” says Thea Singer Spitzer, founder of Critical Change, a consulting company in San Francisco, and author of The Power of Collaboration (Career Press, 2017). “We tell the finance people that our goal is to make money. We tell the project leaders that we need to expand or create next-gen products. We also know that takes some money. Right there, those two groups conflict with each other.”

Business leaders need to “bring everyone together and make sure they own all of those goals,” she says. “Show how they’re not in conflict with each other and talk about priorities.”

Be Clear

To encourage better collaboration, leaders must help team members build a foundation so they can work together effectively. 

The leader should provide clarity and context for team members, says Juliana Stancampiano, CEO of Oxygen, a learning and development consulting company based in Seattle, and author of Radical Outcomes (Oxygen Learning LLC, 2019). Spending more time upfront clarifying goals, timelines and expectations will allow the team to work faster later in the process. 

To do this, the team must:

Align behind a common goal. Make sure it’s clear, because it will be a guidepost for keeping work on track later. 

Clarify each team member’s role. It helps drive accountability and lets everyone know whom to ask for information on a specific topic. 

Agree on the process. What are the expectations? How often will team members communicate, and by what method? 

Establish a code of conduct. How will team members treat each other? What will they do? What won’t they do? For example, they might agree not to talk behind each other’s backs. Or they might agree to ask questions before making assumptions.

“When you get that clear, most people want to show up and have success,” Stancampiano says. 

A group of executives with strong personalities might agree to pause to allow time for questions before they jump in to solve a problem. “Everyone asks different questions, and you learn so much more,” she says.

To keep work moving, she suggests that team members agree to reach out for help if they get stuck on a problem for more than 30 minutes.

“That’s a really scary thing for a lot of people because we’ve all been told that once we have some education and experience that we should have all the answers,” she says. “That’s not possible today when so much information is out there.” 

Of course, leaders must model the behaviors that are expected of the team, treating each team member with respect. They also should understand the strengths and weaknesses of individual team members, assigning tasks that match their strengths.

“To do that, you have to get in and do the work with them,” Stancampiano says. “Get to know them and have conversations with them.”

Leaders should also monitor the team’s energy level to guard against burnout. And if a team member has a personal issue, provide support and time away if needed.

“Some people think we have to do big things for people,” she says, “but really trust evolves from the little things you do for them and the little things that you notice about them.”

Training Helps

Instructing employees on collaboration techniques can improve teamwork. For example, framing a topic can help team members stay on task. Including carefully crafted descriptions in meeting agendas is a start. Also, beginning conversations with a question, rather than a statement, can help set a collaborative tone. Starting with a statement can divide team members, Spitzer says.

To help team members open up to new ideas and avoid heated debates, Spitzer developed an activity based on the belief/doubt approach to critical thinking, developed by author Peter Elbow. Instead of dividing team members into opposing camps, for and against, leaders can guide the team to look at the positives together, which Spitzer calls a “belief search.” Then, direct the group to evaluate the negatives in a “doubt search.” This activity helps the group do a better job of evaluating options, she says.

When a team’s work is done, team members will want to know that their efforts matter. If business leaders want a more collaborative culture, they will celebrate the team’s accomplishment and communicate the change that resulted from it.   

Dori Meinert is senior writer/editor for HR Magazine.

What Makes an Effective Team?

Google researchers found that the following factors contribute to effective team performance:

Psychological safety. Team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front 

of each other.

Dependability. Team members get things done on time and well.

Structure and clarity. Team members have clear roles, plans and goals.

Meaning. Work is personally important to team members.

Impact. Team members think their work matters and creates change.


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