Psychoanalysing collaboration

[5 minute read]

Technology that enables people to work together is essential. And the more intuitively it is designed, the more effective it is. There is seemingly an exponential proliferation of tools that are branded ‘collaboration’ which promise a world of benefits. COVID-19 has also played an additional role in creating further demand for smart collaboration technologies. These technologies are not only about collaboration; but rather about overall work performance that enables productivity to be higher. Work from Anywhere (WFA) arrangements are now proving to be more effective than traditional work arrangements.

Productivity is a critical driver which is why collaboration-branded technological tools focus on promoting the speed at which documents and knowledge can be shared. There can’t be much argument against the usefulness of technology in that regard. But there is much to be said about the fact that such tools obscure a far more critical element of collaboration – trust! No amount of technological design can make collaboration work without a bedrock of trust. It has been long recognised that collaboration is far more about the human factor, which is in part why we strategists keep looking for new ways to improve it. The December 2019 issue of the Harvard Business Review dedicated its cover story to collaboration with the title “Cracking the Code of Collaboration” which explored new tools mainly related to human factor skills, such as listening and practicing empathy.

benefits of collaboration

Professor Paul J. Zak discovered neurologic mechanisms that enable cooperation and trust, and these mechanisms have been used by the World Bank to stimulate prosperity in developing countries and by businesses to enhance economic performance. The above stats are from his research paper “The Neuroscience of high trust organisations”.

Over the years I have learned that the correlation between trust and collaboration is something that can make or break a project. It can also be the most defining feature of organisational resilience and culture. Figuring out how much we can trust others is difficult. Sometimes a simple test can reveal a lot. I use collaboration as such a test. Specifically, I focus on people’s attitudes to collaboration, the way they talk about it, the way they reflect on past collaboration experiences, their reaction when possible future collaborations may be required. These things reveal a lot of small details that cumulatively paint a strong sense of the level of trust I can place in that person. Whether consciously or not, we never let our mental guard down; we constantly assess others to ensure we know where we stand.

“Collaborative culture is a trust culture. It is also a resilient culture.” 

Cooperative behaviour is as vital to human life as anything else. Knowing whom to trust is indispensable. We tend not to share much with people we don’t trust. We are also less likely to put in extra effort to help them. When those things become systematic in a workplace, the ability to create solutions, innovate, be efficient, grow and be happy at work diminish markedly. Research has showed that, compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report less stress, more energy at work, and 50% higher productivity.

Collaborative culture is a trust culture. It is also a resilient culture. Trust between co-workers creates social capital that is an absolute asset to enterprises that hope to ride any disruptive storm. My own observations over the years tell me that organisations with low levels of trust are highly unlikely to cultivate collaboration-rich cultures. More worrying is what can be characterised as a collaboration paradox; senior executives who nominally encourage their employees to collaborate but they themselves avoid doing so because their path to the C-suit was on the back of avoiding collaboration. This fairly ordinary but all too familiar state of organisational culture is what prevents businesses from moving forward.

Hence the simple truth; if the collaboration does not change you, you probably are not collaborating.

Going back to trust and collaboration though, organisations that have more trusting cultures and are driven by instinct to cooperate, are in fact putting themselves into a more competitive position. This is based on an incredible piece of science. Within groups, selfish individuals win against altruists, but groups of altruists will beat a group of selfish individuals.

The question of trust is not a soft question in business. It is a hard question that demands more from executives. As former Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers remarked Trust is everything. Your currency today is your track record, your relationships, and your trust.” A lack of trust is recognised by most global CEOs as a threat to an organisation’s growth.

Employees are stakeholders in any business. As such they need to know trust is a currency that is guarded by three things: strategy, accountability and leadership. When these are absent, collaboration is impossible. Investing in technology tools that are supposed to help people collaborate without investing effort in helping people build trust and change their behaviour is then merely window dressing. And costly at that.