In theory, collaboration is great. A team of talented employees working together like cogs in a well-oiled machine can spark innovation, drive creativity, share skills, and finish projects quicker and more efficiently than the individual team members ever could working on their own.
Research backs up the common sense: in 2014, a Stanford study found that participants who were collaboratively in tune with their peers remained focused on their tasks 64% longer than those working alone, and further enjoyed lower fatigue levels, higher success rates, and better engagement rates. This boost in performance has a measurable positive impact on a business’s capacity for achievement: another study recently found that companies that pushed for collaborative work were five times as likely to become high-performers.
Common sense, theory, and statistics all exclaim the value of collaboration — but in practice, actually getting people to work together is usually a bit of a mess.
Acting as part of a team is inherently uncomfortable. You have to find a way to reconcile your expectations, working methods, and communication styles with those your co-workers hold — and if you don’t know the people you work with well, the process can become a somewhat adversarial. Counterintuitively, having complementary skills and shared goals does not guarantee that team members will share their skills or even achieve those goals.
Collaboration demands an open, communicative, and friendly atmosphere; the teams that exist in siloed silence or unfriendly competition inevitably fall into unproductivity.
Even in communicative offices, some breakdown is inevitable. Interestingly, one study conducted in 2007 stumbled onto a paradox inherent in collaboration: teams need to be large, virtual, diverse, and comprised of well-educated experts to succeed in complex projects — but teams that have those four qualities also tend to have trouble getting anything done. As researchers Lynda Gratton and Tamara J. Erickson wryly write of their findings in the Harvard Business Review: “The qualities required for success are the same qualities that undermine success.”
The pair’s findings won’t be particularly reassuring for business executives and company leaders. Gratton and Erickson noted that groups of twenty or more experienced more communication breakdowns than smaller groups, and those that relied on virtual communication saw a similar lack of connection. Teams with diverse backgrounds and experiences often suffered from individualistic tendencies, as members seemed to feel that they had little in common with one another and opted not to share their knowledge and skills. Groups with a higher number of well-educated experts tended to fall into conflict and stalemate. In other words, all of the attributes meant to make a growing business thrive appear to have caused a collaborative breakdown, rather than boost performance for the company.
Needless to say, these results seem discouraging — but are they really?
Consider a deconstructed car. An engineer can have the best parts on the market, the most cutting-edge plans, and the loftiest aspirations for the finished vehicle, but if he haphazardly throws the components into place and hopes for the best, the car isn’t going to go anywhere. It might break down entirely — and lose a few parts in the process.
Just like cars, teams need to be well-constructed and maintained if they are to achieve their performance potential. Executives and team leaders stand as engineers, perfectly positioned to ensure that the team as a whole runs smoothing.
Needless to say, though, developing a collaborative culture across teams and businesses is no easy task. Below, I outline a few ways that executives can promote effective collaboration in their organizations.
Assemble Teams Strategically
Human resources are just that — human. While it might be tempting to assign workers based solely on the way employees’ skills complement each other, leaders should also pay attention to how the people will interact once grouped.
If all of the individuals within the group are strangers, they probably won’t feel comfortable sharing information and opening their work to group scrutiny right away. However, some research shows that when 20% to 40% of a team’s members are already familiar, the team is more likely to start off on a collaborative foot. The friendly team members can then act as connective “nodes” for the team and create a network of strong co-working relationships.
Make Mingling a Priority
Organic interaction is vital for sparking creative thinking in the workplace. Some of the bigger tech companies have worked this need for natural interpersonal collisions into their very architecture. Steve Job and the architects for Apple’s main campus in Cupertino, for example, specially designed the site’s architecture to mingle private and shared spaces in a way that would allow employees to “concentrate one minute and […] bump into another group of people the next.”
For those businesses that can’t afford to build a futuristic campus for the sake of collaboration, team bonding activities will serve more or less the same purpose. Establishing regular events such as bagel breakfasts, trips to local sporting events, and even regular happy hours can help boost morale, improve co-working relationships, and allow for more collaboration.
Depoliticize Senior Management
Employees base their behavior on what they see at the top. If workers believe that they need to play their cards close to their chest and fight their co-workers for recognition and promotion, they won’t open themselves up to interpersonal work and idea-sharing.
Companies whose upper echelons of management are fraught with political games and communication dysfunction allow that negative culture to trickle down to the employee base as a whole. Cutthroat, competitive environments rarely allow for the creative collaboration businesses need to cultivate innovation and open discussion. Enterprises need to depoliticize their senior management structures and set clear incentives that encourage executives to collaborate and advance organizational interests rather than their own career goals if they are to thrive.
Commit to the Long Haul
One company picnic won’t establish a decades-long culture of collaboration in the office. Leaders who want to optimize their teams and empower productive teamwork need to develop long-term strategies and track their progress; otherwise, they risk falling into complacency. Checking in with employees periodically and assessing their perceptions of the corporate culture can provide useful insights into what in the culture works and what needs to be reconsidered.
In theory, collaboration is great; in practice, collaboration can also be great — but creating a culture that supports a fluid exchange of ideas will take more work than any new executive might expect.