What makes collaborating teams tick?

On the surface everyone is a collaborator, and every team is a collaborating team. That is the ‘sell’ in contemporary workplaces. Businesses invest in collaboration as a part of their business strategy for a variety of reasons; improving organisational culture, trust, productivity, competitiveness or even, more imaginatively, to increase employee engagement level and improve resilience.

While there are also other reasons, there is no real hierarchy of motives as to why a business should consider collaboration. Some business leaders recognise that competitors talk about it a lot. Some understand that collaboration is now an industry buzzword, which can often prompt them into injecting a new vocabulary into everyday workplace communication so that it can appear as if collaboration is a part of workplace culture. This, however, does not automatically translate into a strategic approach to creating and managing collaboration in the workplace.  

‘collaboration is competition’s way of being more competitive’

To digress slightly, it’s worth remembering how influential the way we talk in workplaces is. Fostering language that reinforces collaborative culture can add to better business across all key indicators.  However, the fine print says that language must be congruent with behaviours and beliefs, which, when it comes to collaboration, cannot be taken for granted.

Teams that experience the real, meaningful, and lasting impact of collaboration are not that difficult to spot.

Although there are some dead giveaway differences in everyday usage of the term collaboration, a collaborative team is more noticeably obvious in the way it acts; the behaviours they exhibit, often through micro gestures and subtle signs, hardly noticeable to a casual observer and most certainly not obvious to those who think of collaboration as nothing more than a spin buzzword. These behaviours are outward signs of internal thoughts and attitudes that good collaborators possess and value in both themselves and others.

Here are four signs of true collaborating teams that I have observed over many years working with and across different groups and industries.

Asking pesky questions

When someone asks a difficult, unusual or ‘weird’ question, their team members don’t wonder why that person is asking the question, suspiciously presuming that there is an ulterior motive. Instead, they become curious and lean in. Good collaborators know a simple truth; fallibility is an inevitable path to finding good business solutions rather than an opportunity to prove someone wrong. Difficult questions are a sign of a deeply engaged team which draws different thinking from its members. It is also a sign of a trusting environment where peoples’ actions are accepted in good faith. 

Emotional investment and rewards

A simple test; does the collaboration feel like it’s a depleting exercise or does it inspire people to continue to successful completion and then execute another one? This is not meant to suggest that collaborations should be easy and free of frustrations. Instead, it’s more like a good game where, despite ups and downs, a feeling of satisfaction prevails and spurs one into more action etc. The way the process of collaboration feels matters a great deal to successful collaborating teams.  A simple indicator is the degree to which the collaboration feeds back into increased motivation.  Emotionally draining processes deplete the overall motivation, concentration, effort and actual ability to produce quality work. What is clear with good collaborating teams is the fact that they pay attention, not only to their own emotions but also to the emotions of others in the team. This is reflective of a collaborative culture best captured in a belief that ‘we all win or we all lose’. Teams where an individual is rewarded rather than the whole team are not collaborating – they are merely playing a game of survival.

Employee recognition

If there is one quick way to destroy a collaborative culture in any workplace then that would be through a lack of credit sharing. The competitive nature of work can make people presume that everyone should take as much credit as they can, while they can. This is not the case in effective collaborating teams. What tends to happen is an instinctive realisation that the total end result was earned by the team. Furthermore, there is a subtle, even intuitive, understanding (which has also been scientifically proven) that collaborating teams, ones that are far more likely to win against a team of selfish individuals, are made of people who admire each other’s skills and experiences without feeling less valued or insecure about own skills and experiences. 

Good collaborating teams also understand that sincere recognition works for both an employee and the business as a whole. Showing a member of a team the value of what they contributed in as specific a way as possible, will make the collaboration more likely to succeed.  

Keeping it real

This goes back to the heart of the very reason why collaboration is necessary.  While it can be about many things, it should never come at the expense of the fact that collaboration is a ‘business strategy’ and, as such, should be organised around the idea that productivity and competitiveness are critical to business. Collaborators then need to keep this in the forefront of their thinking because good results will serve as fuel for a better collaboration in the future.

One way to look at it is to paraphrase Robert Sapolsky’s quip based on his studies in human behaviour; ‘sometimes chicken is an egg’s way of making another egg’. To redescribe that observation into workplace collaboration would sound something like ‘collaboration is competition’s way of being more competitive’. Collaborating teams understand that collaboration is a real chance for them to perform well and thrive professionally, thus never falling for gimmicks that often pass for collaboration.

When these factors are combined, a much clearer picture of collaboration presents itself.  Managers can start with a simple premise; collaboration is not a ‘nice to have’ feature of organisational culture, but rather an essential component of business resilience. Not only does not collaborating often mean missing out on big payoffs, it also enables the emergence of serious and costly issues that impact on organisational culture. 

The small selection of observations offered here are neither meant to be viewed as a formula nor a complete set of building blocks for building successful collaboration teams. Rather, they are simply indicators that can inform anyone interested in building collaboration culture into their workplace.