When it comes to thriving in today’s fast-changing, interconnected global economy, one of the attributes of organizational success that often comes up is ensuring that we promote greater collaboration among the various teams and departments within our workplace.
Indeed, the ability to foster collaboration in your organization has become a critical leadership competency as technological, process-driven differentiators give way to people-centric ones in today’s knowledge-based global economy.
Unfortunately, while leaders may state that they want to engender a more collaborative environment in their organization, they don’t realize how often own actions are actually serving to stifle collaboration, promote the growth of silos, and ultimately hindering their organization’s ability to innovate or incur any real forward momentum.
Time and time again, I’ve met with leaders who are eager to champion collaboration among their different teams and departments, but who unknowingly create or reinforce barriers that prevent their employees from challenging their assumptions or beliefs of how things can be done.
Although in some cases, the actions and behaviours are specific to a particular situation, there are nonetheless some common missteps these leaders share which have only served to impede collaboration among their employees.
To address and prevent these common mistakes from happening in your organization, I’d like to share the following four measures that leaders should take to ensure that they’re creating an environment where employees are compelled to dedicate their discretionary efforts to the shared purpose of their organization.
1. Define at the start what to expect from one another
At the start of any new initiative – whether it’s the development of a new product or service line, a change initiative to improve things, or coming up with an action plan to address a current crisis, there’s the natural and understandable tendency for all involved parties to focus first on the end goal, followed by a discussion of what measures or steps should be taken to get the ball rolling.
While these are critical points to address, there’s a third element that leaders often overlook that’s vital to communicate and establish early on in the process. And that is to define the nature of the working relationships of those involved in this endeavour. Specifically, that you help them to articulate what they should expect from one another.
In several cases, I noted how problems arose not simply because team members disagreed on a particular point or issue, but because they were operating from different perspectives of what they should be expected to do, and what they saw as being their team mates’ responsibility to address.
This lack of clarity in expectations made it difficult for everyone in the team to accept responsibility for what needed to be done, which naturally lead to finger-pointing instead of problem-solving when something invariably went wrong.
Consequently, the team began to fragment into various splinter groups, focused on protecting their interests and reserving any faults or recriminations for those outside their social cluster.
This is why from the very start of any initiative, we need to make sure that we make it very clear what our team mates should not only expect from us, but what they should expect from one another. This will not only help to reduce misunderstandings, but it will also make it easier for your employees to collaborate as there won’t be any concerns over accidentally stepping on the toes of their team mates.
2. Leave intentional spaces for others to contribute
When it comes to the proposal of any new initiative, it’s natural for leaders to want to define all the steps involved and how the organization would go about attaining it.
However, if we want to promote collaboration within our organization, we can’t come into these initiatives with a full game plan in hand. Although it’s easy for us to envision the whole process and various steps involved to get us to where we want to go, we have to restrain ourselves from doing such and instead, create these intentional gaps in our vision or plan.
What these intentional spaces do is allow for our employees to add their own contributions – their talents, insights, and creativity – towards the achievement of the overarching objective behind this vision or initiative. And this will allow for your employees to have a greater sense of shared ownership in that vision or goal.
One of the best examples of this measure in action was in how President John F. Kennedy presented his vision for how the US would send a man to the moon in less than 10 years. While he defined both the end goal and the timeframe for completion, he left these intentional spaces so that the various teams of scientists, engineers, and politicians involved in the endeavour could collaborate towards making his vision a reality.
The effectiveness of this measure is often seen in the story of the NASA janitor who when asked by journalists – who thought he was one of the scientists – what he did at NASA replied that he was helping to send a man to the moon.
The fact that the story continues to be shared as an example of what it was like to work at NASA during the Apollo missions demonstrates just how powerful this gesture is to creating the kind of collaborative environment that allowed for such fantastic achievements to move into the realm of possibility.
3. Don’t let assumptions prevent you from asking questions
Once you’ve helped to clarify what your employees should expect from you and from each other, and have encouraged them to insert themselves into your vision or initiative, it’s easy to think that you’ve set things up to ensure smooth sailing ahead.
While the previous steps are vital to creating a strong foundation to encourage collaborative efforts in your organization, it’s important to recognize that as the process moves forward and evolves, there will be new challenges and obstacles that have the potential to disrupt your employees’ ability and willingness to share resources and combine efforts.
Indeed, the challenge with sustaining collaboration is that we can’t rely solely on efforts made at the beginning to keep things running smoothly. We also have to periodically assess whether the environmental conditions we’re encouraging in our organization are serving to maintain and promote collaboration within our organization, or whether it’s inadvertently leading to the creation of new internal silos or closed off processes.
While it’s necessary to ensure that your employees are committed to the same vision and shared purpose that defines the goals of your collective efforts, it’s important that we not jump to the conclusion that our employees do things for the same reasons we do.
That’s why it’s necessary for us to continually ask questions – so we can not only to gain insights from our employees about potential opportunities and obstacles as we move forward, but to also ensure alignment between what we need our organization to accomplish and what would make our employees feel like they are making meaningful contributions to that end.
This simple effort will make it easier to not only promote a sense of shared accountability among your employees, but it will also ensure your employees don’t fall into the trap of making assumptions about what’s behind the actions and choices of those they collaborate with.
4. Promote a sense of shared ownership over the process and team successes
The final piece to promoting a collaborative environment that I see missing in the approach used by so many leaders appears in that time after decisions are made as to which path to take to achieve the desired goal. In those moments, leaders often fall into the trap of mapping out the route they want their organization to take, and then leaving it up to their employees to simply implement their plan.
In many ways, this is in large part due to the fault that in describing collaboration, we often discuss it only in terms of providing opportunities for different teams and departments to brainstorm new ideas or new concepts. Rarely is it discussed how to carry those discussions forward in terms of shared ownership of the process that will be used to transform these newly created ideas into real-world applications or entities.
The importance of this final piece to establishing a collaborative environment is perhaps best exemplified by the research finding that over 90% of all change initiatives fail because leaders don’t take into consideration how to encourage the active participation of their employees in that process.
Not in terms of simple implementation, but in those conversations where ideas and insights are shared to help shape and define the process that will be used to attain the stated goal.
In other words, if we want to create an environment that promotes and sustains collaborative efforts between our employees, teams, and departments, we have to ensure that our employees feel included; that their voice counts and matters to those who make the final decision.
That’s not to say that this requires us to enact on everything our employees tell us. Rather, it means that we consistently demonstrate that we care about our employees and what they have to say; that we want to better understand their realities in terms of both the challenges/difficulties they face, as well as the opportunities they see going unaddressed.
In doing such, we can not only ensure that they share a sense of ownership in the process of making our vision or initiative a reality, but we’re also able to make them feel like the successes we achieve belong to them as much as they belong to our organization.
At the end of the day, we have to remember that our employees watch our every move to understand not only what we really stand for, but what we’re really paying attention to because that’s what matters most to us. As such, if we want to encourage collaboration in our organization, we need to make sure we are creating the right conditions that will enable our employees to do just that.