Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D
In contrast to control-minded leaders of the past, today’s most effective leaders are exercising a different kind of power. As one Silicon Valley CEO told me: “There is absolutely nothing wrong with command and control. It’s simply irrelevant in the 21st century.”) The new leadership is a blending of personal and interpersonal skills that form the basis of your ability to impact, influence, and inspire others.
To help you optimize the power of collaboration, here are six crucial leadership behaviors:
1) Silo “busting”
The collaboration that is so critical for engagement, innovation, and financial success is being blocked by knowledge-hoarding silos. “Silo” is a business term that has been passed around and discussed in boardrooms over the last 30 years. Unlike many other trendy management buzzwords, this is one issue that has not disappeared. Silos are viewed as a growing pain for organizations of all sizes.
Silo mentality describes the mindset present when departments, divisions, or sectors don’t share information with others in the same company. Wherever it’s found, silo mentality becomes synonymous with power struggles, lack of cooperation, and loss of productivity. Silo mentality can cause organizations to misallocate resources, send inconsistent messages to the marketplace, and fail to leverage scale economies. Silos can be monumentally inefficient and, worse, a major barrier to innovation, profitability, and customer satisfaction.
Silos get “busted” when senior leadership sets unifying goals and promotes a reward structure that emphasizes cooperation and collective success. Business unit leaders must understand the overarching goals of the total organization and the importance of working in concert with other areas of the business to achieve those crucial objectives.
2) Building trust
A collaborative team isn’t a group of people working together. It’s a group of people working together who trust each other. Trust is the belief or confidence that one party has in the reliability, integrity and honesty of another party. It is the expectation that the faith one places in someone else will be honored. It is also the glue that holds together any group, and it is the foundation of true collaboration. Without trust, a team loses its emotional ballast. In an environment of suspicion, people withhold information, hide behind psychological walls, and withdraw from participation.
As a leader, you need people to trust you. But how do you show that you trust them? The way information is handled determines whether it becomes an obstacle to or an enabler of collaboration. Some leaders (who profess to value collaboration) undermine their effectiveness by withholding information or doling it out on a “needs to know” basis. Others ask for input, when what they really want is a “rubber stamp” for decisions already made.
Leaders build trust through honest and transparent communication – which is often trickier than it sounds. For example, it is fine to emphasize the positive aspects of a situation, just be careful not to omit or “sugar-coat” the negative. You may think you’re “protecting” people by doing so – but the signal you are really sending is that you think they can’t handle the truth.
In an atmosphere of high trust, where communication is candid, goals are co-created, setbacks are analyzed for the purpose of learning (not blaming), and successes are celebrated and shared, people respond by taking ownership, becoming even more engaged and forthcoming. And nothing builds trust faster in a leadership team (or ay team, for that matter) than getting to know one another as individuals. When you hold offsite retreats or workplace events, be sure to create opportunities for social time to develop or deepen personal relationships. Reinforcing these relationships at the beginning of any new initiative will also increase effectiveness throughout the process.
3) Warming up their body language
There are two sets of body language cues that people look for in leaders. One set projects warmth and caring and the other signals power and status. Both are necessary for leaders today but, in your role as Chief Influencer, the “warmer side” of nonverbal communication (which has been undervalued and underutilized by leaders more concerned with projecting strength, status, and authority), becomes central to creating the most collaborative workforce relationships.
The body language of inclusion and warmth includes positive eye contact, genuine smiles, and open postures in which legs are uncrossed, and arms are held away from your body, with palms exposed or resting comfortably on the desk or conference table.
Mirroring is another nonverbal sign of warmth. You may not realize it, but when you are dealing with people you like or agree with, you’ll automatically begin to match their stance, arm positions and facial expressions. It’s a way of signaling that you are connected and engaged.
Facing people directly when they’re talking is also crucial. It shows that you are totally focused on them. Even rotating your shoulders a quarter turn away signals a lack of interest and makes the other person feel as if their opinions are being discounted. Of course, giving others your complete attention when they are speaking is one of the warmest, most inclusive signals you can send.
4) Valuing diversity
Experiments at the University of Michigan found that, when challenged with a difficult problem, groups composed of highly adept members performed worse than 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. Instead of exploring alternatives, they allow a confirmation bias to take over and tend to reinforce each other’s predisposition.
Innovation is triggered by cross-pollination. Creative breakthroughs occur most often when ideas collide and combine. And, by the way, innovative breakthroughs today aren’t taking place in a lab, but rather are a result of conversations with customers (internal as well external), suppliers, and “outsiders” who know enough about the problem to contribute, but bring a unique perspective. As one GE executive put it, “Cross-functional teams are enhanced by outside experts who know enough to understand the terms of the question, but not so much as to run into the same stumbling blocks as the subject experts. Chemical problems at GE are almost never solved by a chemist.”
Development Dimensions International has studied leadership for 46 years. In their latest research with over 15,000 leaders from more than 300 organizations across 20 industries in 18 countries, DDI looked at leaders’ conversational skills that had the highest impact on overall performance. At the very top of the list was empathy – specifically, the ability to listen and respond empathetically.
In his book, On Becoming a Person, psychologist Carl Rogers wrote, “Real communication occurs when we listen with understanding – to see the idea and attitude from the other person’s point of view, to sense how it feels to them, to achieve their frame of reference in regard to the thing they are talking about.”
A further discovery in the DDI report was that only four out of ten leaders in their global study were proficient or strong in empathy. As a leader, if you already rank high in empathy, you gain a genuine professional advantage. If not, empathetic listening is a skill worth developing.
5) Creating “psychological safety”
Human beings have two primitive instincts that guide our willingness to collaborate – or not – and they are triggered under very different circumstance.
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 they put away, the safer they felt. Still today whenever we feel fearful, distrustful or insecure, the “hoarding instinct” kicks into high gear, urging us to hold on tightly to whatever we possess – including knowledge. When insights and opinions are ridiculed, criticized or ignored, people feel threatened — and they typically react by declining to contribute further.
On the other hand . . . humans are also a learning, teaching, knowledge-sharing species. According to evolutionary psychologists, this trait is also hard-wired, linking back to when human first started gathering in clans. Leaders trigger the “sharing instinct” when they create psychologically safe workplace environments in which people feel secure, valued, and trusted.
It is noteworthy to add that in the age of digital transformation, even high-tech companies need soft-skilled talent. In researching what makes teams successful, Google’s “Project Aristotle” found that psychological safety is key. Google’s most effective teams also exhibited “social sensitivity,” meaning that members spoke about equally (usually “short and sweet”) and were able to pick up on each other’s interpersonal cues, including body language.
Today’s corporation exists in an increasingly complex and ever-shifting ocean of change. As a result, collaboration is not a “nice to have” organizational philosophy. It is an essential ingredient for organizational survival. As a result, leaders of collaboration (at all management levels) may need to redefine their roles and update their skills.