By Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D
Collaboration has become an essential ingredient for organizational success (perhaps even survival). As organizations move toward more collaborative cultures, a new leadership model is emerging – one that replaces command and control with trust and inclusion. The leader’s role is to encourage team members to see themselves as valued contributors, to help them build their knowledge base, expand their personal networks, and to motivate them to offer their ideas and perspectives in service of a common goal.
Here are my leadership tips, from A to Z, for creating an environment in which people choose to participate and contribute:
Show appreciation. Collaboration is a discretionary effort. You can’t order people to contribute and care. But when they do, you can thank them for their time, their attention, their ideas, their creativity, and their willingness to compromise in order to reach a collective goal.
Watch your body language. All leaders express enthusiasm, warmth, and confidence — as well as arrogance, indifference, and displeasure through their expressions, gestures, touch, and use of space. If leaders want to be perceived as credible and collaborative, they need to make sure that their verbal messages are supported (not sabotaged) by their nonverbal signals.
Involve your customer. For both for-profit corporations and nonprofit agencies, few things are more important to an organization than staying close to the end user of the service or product it offers, and customers are often brought into the collaborative process through focus groups, feedback channels, and dialogue. The same is true for internal customers. When you involve them in your collaborative process, they have an even bigger investment in your team’s success.
Value diversity. Diversity is crucial to harnessing the full power of collaboration. Experiments at the University of Michigan found that, when challenged with a difficult problem, groups composed of highly adept members performed worsethan groups whose members had varying levels of skill and knowledge. The reason for this seemingly odd outcome has to do with the power of diverse thinking. Group members who think alike or are trained in similar disciplines with similar knowledge bases run the risk of becoming insular in their ideas. Instead of exploring alternatives, a confirmation bias takes over and members tend to reinforce one predisposition. Diversity causes people to consider perspectives and possibilities that would otherwise be ignored.
Eliminate the barriers to a free flow of ideas. Everyone has knowledge that is important to someone else, and you never know whose input is going to become an essential part of the solution. When insights and opinions are ridiculed, criticized or ignored, people feel threatened and “punished” for contributing. They typically react by withdrawing from the conversation. Conversely, when people are free to ask “dumb” questions, challenge the status quo, and offer novel–even bizarre–suggestions, then collaboration becomes a creative process of blending diverse opinion, expertise and perspectives.
Learn from failure. Leading innovators like Apple see their failures as being as insightful as their successes. The goal is not to eliminate all errors, but to quickly detect, analyze, and correct mistakes before they become fatal.
Think globally. Collaboration increasingly involves teams that are both virtual and international. Participants are scattered across countries, time zones, and cultures. Leading a global team requires increased sensitivity to and understanding of your own cultural biases and preferences as well as those of your dispersed team members.
Eliminate hoarding by challenging the “knowledge is power” attitude. Knowledge is no longer a commodity like gold, which holds (or increases) it’s worth over time. It’s more like milk – fluid, evolving, and stamped with an expiration date. And, by the way, there is nothing less powerful than hanging on to knowledge whose time has expired.
Utilize the appropriate information channels for different messages. Face-to-face is the richest communication channel because voice, body language, proximity, eye contact, and touch are all present to give deeper meaning to our messages, and to allow us to gauge the instantaneous responses of others. (In face-to-face meetings, our brains process the continual cascade of nonverbal cues that we use as the basis for trust and professional intimacy.) Many information tools including text, instant messenger, and email are “lean,” meaning they lack the inter-personal cues that humans have been using for thousands of years to understand one another. Information channels become richer as you add human elements. Telephone calls and teleconferences give listeners access to vocal prosody. Videoconferencing adds a visual element that allows participants to interpret facial expressions and hand gestures. The more complicated, emotional, or nuanced your message is, the richer your channel should be.
Join the team. The most collaborative and inspirational leaders I’ve seen are “in the boat” with those they lead. They don’t stay above the job or the project or the exercise or the problem. Instead, they became part of a focused group of professionals who work together to find innovative solutions to shared challenges. As one leader put it, “It’s pretty simple, really. Treat all employees as if they were your partners. Because that’s what they all are.”
Capture knowledge. There are two kinds of knowledge that are key to the collaborative process. Explicit knowledge can be transferred in a document or presentation. Tacit knowledge (our instincts, hunches, experiences) is brought out in a conversation, a story, or a relationship. Make sure you are developing strategies to capture both.
Capitalize on the power of mini-culture leadership. Regardless of an overall organizational culture, individual managers, supervisors, and team leaders can nurture high levels of collaboration within their own work group or staff.
Mix it up by rotating personnel in various jobs and departments around the organization, by creating cross-functional teams, and by inviting managers from other areas of the organization to attend (or lead) your team meetings. The simple act of bringing together people from different departments, is the first step in breaking down barriers between internal silos.
Build and nurture networks – your own and your team’s. In research studies as diverse as the Norwegian School of Economics and MIT, the same conclusion was reached: High performers (and high performing teams) build, maintain, and leverage diverse networks that span organizational boundaries and extend beyond the organization.
Model open communication. The way information is handled determines whether it becomes an obstacle to or an enabler of collaboration: Leaders who withhold or omit pertinent information lower team morale. Leaders who are candid and transparent earn the trust of their team members.
Encourage participation. Make people feel safe and valued, emphasize their strengths while encouraging the sharing of mistakes and lessons learned, set clear expectations for outcomes and clarify individual roles, encourage and respect everyone’s contribution. Most of all, realize that you are more successful at harnessing the energies and talents of others when you lead through influence and inclusion rather than by position and power.
Ask the right questions. At the beginning of a project, ask: What information do we need? Whose expertise can we tap? How do we plan to share what we learn? At the end of a project, ask: Where did we hit (or miss) our goals? How much of our success was due to strategy and how much to luck or circumstance? What to we need to start, stop, or continue doing to capitalize on what we’ve learned?
Support relationships. The success of any team – as measured by its creativity, productivity, and effectiveness – hinges on the strength of the ties between its members. Collaboration is enhanced when people get to know one another as individuals. So when designing offsite retreats or other team events, be sure to build in opportunities for socializing in order to give people the opportunity to get to know one another. Taking time to build personal relationships between team members at the beginning of a project will dramatically increase the effectiveness of that team later on.
Tell stories. Collaboration is communicated best through stories – of successes, failures, opportunities, values, and experiences. Upbeat or humorous stories set the stage for collaborative interaction, personal stories bond team members and build “social capital,” stories of failure teach valuable lessons, and stories of “small wins” encourage progress.
Build trust. Trust is the foundation for collaboration. Without trust, a team loses its emotional “glue.” In a culture of suspicion people withhold information, hide behind psychological walls, and withdraw from participation. If you want to create a networked, collaborative group of individuals, the first and most crucial step is to establish an atmosphere of trust.
Focus on unifying goals. Business unit leaders must understand the overarching goals of the total organization and the importance of working in concert with other areas to achieve those crucial strategic objectives. Leaders help their teams understand the importance of the work they are doing by explaining how it supports those organizational goals.
Share your values. One executive talked about his first job, working in a London bank, where he was treated as an inferior because he had a different accent and came from a lower social class than his co-workers. The executive went on to say that he never wanted anyone who worked for him to feel like that.
Make the workplace a collaborative asset. To facilitate collaboration, create environments that stimulate informal conversations from chance encounters. Attractive break-out areas, communal coffee bars, comfortable cafeteria chairs, even wide landings on staircases – all of these increase the likelihood that employees will “bump into one another” and linger to talk.
Take a tip from Xerox and encourage “water cooler” conversations. Xerox discovered that real learning doesn’t take place in the classroom – or in any formal setting. In fact, people were found to learn more from comparing experiences in the hallways than from reading the company’s official manuals, going online to a data base, or attending training sessions. As one wise CEO told me at a business conference, “All of the important conversations are taking place around the wine and cheese bar.”
Realize that collaboration is crucial for your leadership success. We’re witnessing the death of “Superman” or “Wonder Woman” leadership model, where one person comes in with all the answers to save the day. We now know that no leader, regardless of how brilliant and talented, is smarter than the collective genius of the workforce.
Forget about reaching the zenith. Collaborative cultures are learning cultures – and collaborative leadership will always be a work in progress.