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Me, Myself and I

In business, the secret to effectively leading collaboration with others is finding a middle ground between too much and too little team think, where leaders encourage, enable and oversee workplace collaboration rather than simply ask for it to happen.

For many of us, assignments that require input from multiple people, or brainstorming sessions where the group decides a matter, are generally disliked. Frankly that is understandable. Consider the first time anybody asked you to work on a project with someone else. It was likely back in third grade, when a teacher put you together with a group of other kids to build a contraption to drop an egg from the school roof. Chances are, one of you did all the work and the others sat back and watched, distracted by a myriad of far more interesting things.

Those early, less than positive experiences set the stage for disliking team projects in the future and so few leaders know how to help people collaborate more effectively. We often ask people to work together, but we rarely tell them how to do it effectively.

If better collaboration is our goal, we must start by coaching and inspiring others and getting them familiar with the tools that they should use to improve collaboration – and thus better business in the long run. Those tools include empowerment, openness, and co-creation. Those three things really just boil down to giving employees control, being honest and then allowing those employees to work together to solve problems. They’re all basic ideas but few leaders actually know how to achieve this.

The companies that do collaboration well succeed because they trust their employees. The truth is that as difficult as it may be at times, we need to believe that someone else’s idea can be better than our own.

To successfully promote collaboration, leaders must actively endorse a business model where good ideas come out of working together. They must also demonstrate that real collaboration equals innovation, and be on the watch for communication breakdowns.

As leaders we must frequently check in with teams to watch for problem signs and potential problems might not always be obvious. A subtle breakdown can occur when, for example, the most creative and valuable team member is afraid to speak up while the least-creative employee is the most talkative. Good leaders will ask for regular feedback on member interaction as well as team progress.

Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively we must also encourage conflict to have effective collaboration – clearly shouting and name-calling is counterproductive, but opposing perspectives are hugely valuable.

In many Asian business cultures workers are more likely to feel like they need to be part of a team and in many countries, corporate culture is a near-opposite experience to the western model – ideas often come from a group and are vetted before they are approved.

But all that solidarity also has a downside. In some Asian companies employees are afraid to speak up and would never think of questioning a coworker’s idea and that professional success is based on being a cooperative member of the collective group. That can lead to a host of problems, from faulty products to failed proposals, when employees don’t speak up when they see problems.

So the solution to our effective collaboration dilemma then, is somewhere in the middle. We really need to identify leaders who can foster effective collaboration, and encourage and push employees to work together. We also need to create a structure in which collaborating workers can make suggestions, ask questions, and even cast doubt on the plans of others…….

If only it were that easy in the workplace though where egos, personal agendas, political shenanigans and hierarchies actively work against collaboration. Like the beehive though, we need to recognize that the role we play and our effectiveness in the collaborative working community ensures the sustainability of the organization at large.

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