“It is the long history of humankind and animal kind
that those who learned to collaborate and 
improvise most effectively have prevailed.”
                                                     – Charles Darwin  
There are two terms that, of recent, seem to be increasingly utilized as traits associated with successful 21st century businesses; sustainability and collaboration.  Sustainability can be broadly defined as the ability to exist constantly and continually.  In the 21st century it is generally referred to as the ability of the biosphere and human civilization to co-exist.  Collaboration is the product of people “wanting” to work together.  Per John Maxwell, “When you want to work with others, you are learning, engaging in creativity and making synergy, combining good ideas to generate great ideas, and valuing others.  In other words, you are making yourself better!”  I would agree that they are valuable as distinct traits, but I propose that they are even more powerful when combined to create an organizational trait called, “Sustained Collaboration”.

Have you ever wondered why some organizational changes are temporary, or expectations for an initiative’s impact fall short of expectations?  There is a simple answer that can be discovered through the following two questions; First ask, “Is collaboration a sustained value that is embraced by your organization?”   Most leaders will respond, “Absolutely!”  Then ask, “Is collaboration a sustained mindset that is promoted by and permeates throughout your organization?”   The most common response you will get is a quizzical look!   The actual answer to the question can be found in Francesca Gino’s HBR post, “Cracking the Code of Sustained Cooperation”

Gino’s research reveals that we have a narrow view of collaboration as something that needs to be done in order to achieve a desired organizational outcome.  The problem is that many within the organization are unaware of, or lack the ability to engage in collaboration.  Too often we find workplace cultures that reflect a distrust of others and an obsession with their own status.   A sustained collaborative workplace is enabled when team members own a psychological skill set that includes respect for colleagues’ contributions, openness to experimenting with others’ ideas, and sensitivity to how one’s actions may affect both a colleague’s work and organizational mission achievement.   A daunting task, but a necessary one for organizations seeking long-term growth.

A sustained collaborative workplace begins with leadership encouraging an outward focus by everyone, and challenging the self-focus tendency of what we want, the ideas we have, and what we need to say.  What becomes more important is what we can learn by listening to others.  

In her research Gino identifies six training techniques that enable both leaders and employees to work well together, learn from one another, and overcome the psychological barriers that often get in the way of doing both.  They all help people connect more fully and consistently. 

  1. Teach People to Listen, Not Talk – The research suggests that all too often when others are talking, we’re getting ready to speak instead of listening.  To improve our listening we can:

    1. Ask expansive questions.

    2. Focus on the listener and what is being said, not on yourself.

    3. Engage in self-checks by restating the message to the speaker.

    4. Become comfortable with silence.

  2. Train People to Practice Empathy – Being receptive to the views of someone we disagree with is no easy task, but when we approach the situation with a desire to understand our differences, we get a better outcome.  Strategies that can help include:

    1. Expanding others’ thinking by presenting challenges or questions that encourage the speaker to further develop an idea.

    2. Look for the unspoken.  Pay attention to what is not being said.

  3. Make People More Comfortable With Feedback – Good collaboration involves giving and receiving feedback well – and from a position of influence rather than authority.  The following can help:

    1. Discuss feedback aversion openly.   Aversion to feedback is common.  Open discussion of reservations and challenges around feedback helps participants feel less alone.

    2. Make feedback about the behaviors of others direct, specific and applicable.

    3. Give feedback on feedback.

    4. Add a “Plus” to other’s ideas.   Make your teammate look good by enhancing the scene or project he or she has started.

    5. Provide live coaching.  Point out examples of good feedback and ways in which it can be improved.

  4. Teach People to Lead and Follow – The best collaborators, those known for adding value to interactions and solving problems, are those who can “Flex”.  They demonstrate an ability to both lead and follow and move comfortable between the two.

  5. Speak With Clarity and Avoid Abstractions – Our words carry more weight and value when we are concrete and provide vivid images of goals.   Likewise our statements are judged to be more truthful.

  6. Train People to Have Win-Win Interactions – By balancing talking (to express your own concerns and needs) with asking questions and letting others know what your understanding is of their needs, you can devise solutions that create more value.  With a win-win mindset, collaborators are able to find opportunities in differences.

Leaders and organizations that are frustrated by a lack of sustained collaboration need ask only one question to start the process, “What are we doing on a daily basis to encourage it?  Daily cooperation is a given, but sustained collaboration is an art.  Why not begin your masterpiece today?