Effective collaboration unlocks innovation and helps to foster a happy workforce, but few firms do it well. Here’s what you can learn from those who do.
When people bring complementary skills to the table they achieve more, and do so more efficiently. But heavy-handed approaches to fostering collaboration – like open-plan offices and institutional goal-setting – rarely lead to genuine change.
Writing for Harvard Business Review, Francesca Gino explains how some firms are training staff to work together, describing a six-step strategy that fosters a genuinely collaborative culture.
During meetings, people often focus so much on what they’re going to say, that they fail to listen to what anyone else says. When that’s repeated around the table, you end up with a situation where nobody listens to anybody else. Opportunities for collaboration are lost and conflict abounds where there could be consensus.
At Pixar, anyone stepping into a management position must undertake a 90-minute listening class; at Webasto the “Listen Like a Leader” course features similar exercises:
- Active listening. Participants discuss the qualities which define the best listeners they know, before applying those qualities through exercises designed to encourage so-called “active listening”. They practise asking open-ended questions that cannot be answered with a straight “yes” or “no”, for example those beginning with “what” and “how”.
- Simulated conversations. Coaches demonstrate the difference between active and passive listening through simulated conversations.
- Self-assessment. Self-check exercises give participants the opportunity to critique their own listening styles.
- Role play. Participants take turns to pay no attention to their partner, parrot what he or she says, or paraphrase. When you know what it feels like not to be listened to, you begin to learn how to avoid making the same mistake.
- Body language. Learning to use body language to “communicate attentiveness and respect while you’re silent”.
Disagreement often leads to conflict, but effective collaboration means learning to differ without acrimony. That means beginning with the assumption that your teammates are “smart, caring, and fully invested”. With such a mindset, it’s possible to begin to question why others hold different views to your own. This in turn fosters a spirit of curiosity and learning.
Here are some examples of exercises that encourage an empathetic approach:
- Questioning. One participant presents, the others ask questions which encourage the presenter to think through their argument in a different way, without leading them to a particular conclusion resulting from an idea of their own. This helps the speaker to feel genuinely heard.
- Listening for subtext. Participants listen to a speaker and attempt to understand and interpret their tone and body language to work out what they aren’t saying – “I noticed your voice was somewhat tentative…what are some of the strengths and weaknesses you see in it [your idea].”
Whether there’s agreement or not, collaborating partners feel much happier when they perceive that their point of view has enjoyed a full and open-minded hearing.
GET USED TO FEEDBACK
Collaboration hinges on giving and receiving feedback without rancour. That’s hard to do when egos get in the way. Here’s how to practise the art of positive feedback – and how to take on board others’ critiques without getting offended.
- Be open about aversion to critique. When we give feedback, we want to appear firm but fair; when we receive it, there’s a tension between the wish to improve and the desire for approval, but “open discussion of reservations and challenges around feedback helps participants feel less alone”.
- Be clear. Feedback is often vague. Instead, practise making feedback “direct, specific and applicable”. Think of a time when you could have given a critique but didn’t. Write down what you could have said following three rules: a) be clear; b) identify what did or did not work; c) state the effect this had on you and the rest of the team.
- Respond. Coaching feedback means feeding back on the feedback.
- Adopt a “yes, plus” approach to others’ ideas. Build on others’ ideas by adding to the positives while avoiding harsh criticism of the things with which you disagree. This way, your feedback is positive.
- Live coach. At Pixar, coaches sit in on brainstorming sessions, intervening when they think a comment or question does not allow collaboration. Live coaching leadership development manager Jamie Woolf says: “In the moment feedback may not feel good. As with medicine, it often takes a while for people to see the benefits. But they come to realise that feedback is a gift and is key to their personal development.”
LEARN TO FOLLOW
When, in 2018, a group of boys and their football coach got stuck in a cave in Thailand, a host of recovery experts arrived on scene to save the party from the encroaching floodwaters. It was a low-ranking rather than leading engineer who came up with the idea of placing large tubes above the cave to funnel rainwater away from the entrance that stopped the water climbing higher. Team leaders must learn to follow good ideas – wherever they come from.
- Practise self-awareness by encouraging staff to self-appraise their performance. Most people are over-optimistic about their performance, but feedback can help us to be more realistic about our abilities and more open to collaboration.
- Discuss why it’s hard to delegate, why failing to do so neglects others’ long-term professional development, how delegation goes wrong, and ways to “tailor delegation to the abilities and motivation of those being handed control”.
LEARN TO BE CLEAR
“Our words would carry more weight if we were more concrete and provided vivid images of goals. And our statements would also be judged more truthful.”
Here’s an exercise to help you learn to be specific – to say who, what, when, etc:
Think of something you need to tell a colleague. Spend time thinking about the best way to get your message across in the clearest way possible, deliver your message, then ask for feedback – does your teammate understand what you want? Be sure to say why you’re giving specific instructions – people respond much better if they know the purpose behind the request.
LOOK FOR MUTUAL BENEFIT
Ask training partners to share an orange. Tell one that he or she needs the peel for a muffin recipe, the other that he or she needs the fruit for making juice. Most times, the participants fail to tell one another what their goal is so that often each gets half the orange, but less of what he or she needs. Is either satisfied with the outcome of the negotiation? How could they have done better?
Learning to investigate others’ needs means you can work towards outcomes where maybe nobody gets everything they want, but everyone gets what they need.
Practise an exercise in which each participant has information others do not, with the goal being to reach the best deal for all. Afterwards, feedback ways they could improve transparency by balancing the expression of their own needs and goals with enquiring after the needs and goals of the other participants. Looking for the win-win means “collaborators are able to find opportunities in difference”.
Learning to collaborate creates a positive dynamic in which people feel respected and listened to, able to express themselves, can give and accept feedback without creating conflict and, by sharing information and building on one another’s ideas, “make creative productive teamwork a way of life”.