By Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D
Some years ago, when I was speaking to a group of executives about change leadership, the topic of collaboration came up as a corporate initiative many in the audience were dealing with. On a whim I asked, “How many of you are totally comfortable sharing information with others in your organization?” I was astonished when out of an audience of about 200, only three hands went up. Clearly, if the people responsible for managing, creating, and promoting collaboration were uncomfortable doing it themselves, we were looking at a big problem — a human problem. And that’s the element that always interests me, because understanding people is at the heart of all successful leadership strategies.
With collaboration, for example, there are two basic instincts that are automatically triggered under different circumstances: hoarding and sharing. The instinct to hoard can be traced back to early humans hoarding vital supplies, like food, out of fear of not having enough. The more food they put away, the safer they felt. In an evolutionary sense, those who hoarded food and other basic necessities, were better off, healthier, and produced more offspring.
This emotional attachment to our possessions has been hard-wired into our brains to help us survive. And, still today, whenever we feel threatened, fearful, distrustful or insecure, the “hoarding gene” kicks into high gear, urging us to hold on tightly to whatever we possess – including knowledge.
Some corporate policies unwittingly trigger knowledge hoarding. When an organization’s evaluation, promotion and compensation systems are based on relative numbers and individual achievements, it reinforces the perception is that sharing knowledge reduces the chance of personal success.
Some managers undermine collaboration by their own hoarding behavior — withholding information from their team or doling it out on a “needs to know” basis. And some bosses ask for their staffs’ input, when what they really want is a “rubber stamp” for decisions already made.
On the other hand . . . humans are also a learning, teaching, knowledge-sharing species. This too has been hard-wired in us. Experiments at Notre Dame support the notion that cooperation helped our ancient ancestors survive. Computer simulations add to real world evidence that teamwork in early humans was critical.
There are leaders at all levels of an organization who create a collaborative environment within their work group or team by nurturing the conditions under which people naturally want to share and support one another. These successful individuals realize that people are inspired to collaborate when they are part of something that has meaning, when they feel safe, and when they are valued as contributors.
Here are seven actions that inspire collaboration:
- Take the time and effort necessary to make people feel secure and appreciated. Co-create “rules of engagement” that outline the ways in which your team members agree to treat one another.
- Let your team know why this project is important (you’d be surprised to know how often this is not done) and then set clear expectations for group outcomes and individual roles.
- Build trust by displaying trustworthiness – be consistent, candid, open, vulnerable, and supportive.
- Tell stories to build community, create a shared identity, and help people learn from successes and failures.
- Respect and encourage diversity – of background, of experience, of opinion, of thinking.
- Provide opportunities for team members to interact with one another and with other parts of the organization in order to develop relationships that are the bedrock of collaboration.
- Watch your body language. Collaborative leaders don’t just say they want everyone’s input, they send nonverbal signals of inclusion – giving people their full attention, listening carefully, and making positive eye contact,.
Collaboration is also intrinsically inspiring because it has an emotional payoff. People like being part of a winning team, and as one collaborative leader told me: “There is a phenomenal sense of accomplishment in achieving as a group what could never have been achieved as individuals.”