Creating a collaborative culture

4 minute read

Collaboration in work is no longer just a buzzword. Today it is an essential process for decision-making and innovation. And with the rise of remote and hybrid working, successful collaboration will mark out the winners from the losers. 10Eighty's Joan O'Connor outlines the barriers to collaboration and what it takes to make it happen in your business

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10Eighty helps individuals to maximise their potential and helps organisations to harness that potential. We are experts in developing leadership capability and helping organisations increase employee engagement

Creating a collaborative culture

Effective collaboration is vital for the overall success of a team, enabling increased productivity and good use of resources. An international study that Google commissioned with the Future Foundation found an 81% positive correlation between collaboration and innovation.

The key is to encourage an environment where all team members feel valued and empowered, where they take ownership of projects, taking responsibility for their results and accountability for their actions. When you expect and encourage creativity, innovation and different viewpoints from all team members, a really clever idea can come from an unexpected quarter – someone further down the organisation or a new employee is as likely to make a significant contribution as anyone else.

Socially distanced collaboration

Being in lockdown for large parts of the 15 months means that collaboration is socially distanced as we work remotely, so communication and collaboration have, necessarily, become networked and digital. This creates a dilemma because for many shared space is key to creating shared understanding. However despite the challenges, we are learning to make it work through technology.

These adopted ways of communication and collaboration are safer, healthier but for many just as productive in our current circumstances. We are used to the idea that collaboration is spontaneous, perhaps a bit disorganised and often unplanned, but we are discovering that when seeking a new perspective it can come via collaborative tools just as much as from a watercooler moment. When dispersed teams have the software and networking platforms that facilitate innovation and collaboration, it’s still possible to be productive and a cohesive team.

Which is not to say that this form of collaboration at work is easy. You need an organisational culture predicated on shared knowledge and shared goals that encourages exploration, experimentation, innovation and risk-taking. This relies on trust and respect at both organisational and individual level.

Leadership makes the difference

In a culture of collaboration the organisation enables leaders to bring together employees into the circle of leadership.

A Harvard Business Review report by Lynda Gratton and Tamara Erickson showed that at a basic level, a team’s success or failure at collaborating reflects the philosophy of top executives in the organisation. “Teams do well when executives invest in supporting social relationships, demonstrate collaborative behaviour themselves, and create what we call a 'gift culture'—one in which employees experience interactions with leaders and colleagues as something valuable and generously offered, a 'gift'.

You can’t impose a collaborative work style or dictate the ‘right’ or ‘proper’ way to collaborate. Addressing the cultural dynamic requires leaders to communicate around values in order to explain the concept of shared understanding and the principle that a team works better than an individual. And not just communicate but demonstrate buy-in and model appropriate behaviours.

Collaborative leaders seek to involve other people in making decisions and solving problems while providing direction, and allowing them autonomy and self-governance. They coach and develop their people for effective outcomes.

These are leaders who engage, influence, and inspire by using coaching, mentoring and emotional self-awareness –competencies which are critical for effective collaboration. Collaborative leaders are able to see past their own area of expertise or control to identify and enable initiatives that have the potential to add value for the organisation as a whole. These are leaders who are comfortable sharing ownership, credit and reward.

Barriers to collaboration

In the current crisis our challenge with dispersed leadership and teams is that communication and engagement are sometimes stretched and stressed.

If your organisational culture doesn’t foster collaborative attributes there are a range of barriers you may encounter, including employees not believing that their contribution will be recognised and being reluctant to share their knowledge. Anecdotal data suggests that it is much easier to not share when working remotely.

Poor communication will hamper collaboration, particularly a failure to listen. If someone doesn’t really value the opinions of their peers they may be unwilling to listen to others, failing to demonstrate empathy and offer encouraging feedback. Again, when people are feeling stretched and stressed, there is a greater chance they will not be listening as well as they could and not be as willing to take on board others’ viewpoints.

A lack of diversity in thinking and experience only compounds this collaboration challenge. Effective collaboration requires individuals to be open minded to different perspectives. When this is limited it can lead to potential misunderstanding; team members feeling uncomfortable with one another and in worst cases feeling threatened by difference of opinion.

A culture of collaboration

Collaborative leaders build relationships that enable them to enthuse their teams to participate in a collaborative effort that may entail some risk and, sometimes, failure and to make that an accepted part of the culture.

Creating a collaborative culture is greatly enhanced when initiatives are well defined and designed to source solutions through teamwork and cooperation to specific business challenges to innovate, improve operations or drive productivity and profit.

Making it happen

Creating a collaborative culture requires the right mindset from leaders and employees.

● Appreciate and accept differences and unique strengths.

● Be open to new and different perspectives, opinions and perceptions.

● Positively reinforce everyone’s efforts to contribute ideas.

● Communicate opinions, thoughts and feelings openly and honestly, be positive and non-judgmental.

● Avoid negative criticism, especially of a personal nature.

Demonstrate trust, respect and transparency of process and resolve conflicts fairly.

It takes effort to establish a culture. When team members lack a shared frame of reference, they tend to struggle to understand how best to communicate effectively and work well together.

We need to build teams that can cohere around their objective but also be able to flex, adapt and regroup to tackle the next challenge. Forget turf wars and silos, a healthy collaborative work style pulls in talent from different areas of influence. Establishing a 'we’re all in it together' mentality secures buy in, empathy, and trust. Whether working in a co-located or remote environment, this mindset enables you to make a real difference.

Joan O'Connor is head of leadership practice at management consultancy 10Eighty

Published 16 June 2021
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