Sustained Collaboration

From the latin collaborare, meaning to work together.

Often, leaders think about collaboration too narrowly: as a value to cultivate but not a skill to teach. It’s not for lack of trying; open offices and listing collaboration as an organizational goal, for example.

The problem is these methods are superficial and do not produce sustained collaboration.

What is needed is a psychological approach. Sustained collaboration is marked by common mental attitudes: widespread respect for colleagues’ contributions, openness to experimenting with others’ ideas, and sensitivity to how one’s actions may affect both colleagues’ work and the mission’s outcome. Most people display the opposite mentality, distrusting others and obsessing about their own status. Leaders must encourage an outward focus in everyone, challenging the tendency we all have to fixate on ourselves—what we’d like to say and achieve—instead of what we can learn from others.

Here are six training techniques to foster sustained collaboration in your organization.

1. Teach People to Listen, Not Talk

Our whole lives we are taught to speak up for ourselves. That competitive tendency becomes a liability. All too often when others are talking, we’re getting ready to speak instead of listening.

We fail to listen because we’re anxious about our own performance, convinced that our ideas are better than others’, or both. As a result we get into conflicts that could be avoided, miss opportunities to advance the conversation, alienate the people who haven’t been heard, and diminish our teams’ effectiveness.

When we really listen, on the other hand, our egos and our self-involvement subside, giving everybody the space to understand the situation—and one another—and to focus on the mission. Listening can be improved by these practices:

Ask expansive questions.

This is one of the behaviors encouraged at the animation studio Pixar. People stepping into managerial roles are required to take, among other courses, a 90-minute lunchtime class on the art of listening, which is held in a conference room decorated with posters of movie characters reminding participants to “Stay curious” and “Build on others’ ideas.”

In one exercise participants practice asking their partners open-ended “what” and “how” questions—which prompt people to provide more information, reflect on their situations, and feel more heard—rather than yes-or-no questions, which can kill conversations. For instance, instead of saying to someone “Did you try asking others who’ve worked on similar projects for advice?” participants are coached to ask “In what ways have you reached out to others for advice?”

Focus on the listener, not on yourself.

In another exercise, two coaches act out conversations to illustrate the difference between active listening and not really listening. One coach might say: “I’ve been so sick, and our calendar is so full, and I have this trip planned to see my family. There’s so much to do and I just don’t know how I’m going to pull it all off.” In the not-listening interaction, the other coach responds, “At least you get to go to Europe” or “I’m going to Croatia in two weeks, and I’m really excited.” In the active-listening version, she says, “That sounds really stressful—like you’ll feel guilty for leaving work and guilty if you don’t visit your family.” The coaches then ask the class to share their reactions and try the more effective approach in pairs.

Become comfortable with silence.

This doesn’t mean just not speaking; it means communicating attentiveness and respect while you’re silent. And it’s a challenge for those who are in love with the sound of their own voices. Such people dominate discussions and don’t give others who are less vocal or who simply need more time to think an opportunity to talk.

2. Train People to Practice Empathy

Think about the last time you were in a conflict with a colleague. Chances are, you started feeling that the other person was either uncaring or not very bright, my research suggests. Being receptive to the views of someone we disagree with is no easy task, but when we approach the situation with a desire to understand our differences, we get a better outcome.

In successful collaborations, each person assumes that everyone else involved, regardless of background or title, is smart, caring, and fully invested. That mindset makes participants want to understand why others have differing views, which allows them to have constructive conversations. Judgment gives way to curiosity, and people come to see that other perspectives are as valuable as theirs.

3. Make People More Comfortable with Feedback

Good collaboration involves giving and receiving feedback well—and from a position of influence rather than one of authority. The following methods can help.

Make feedback about others’ behavior direct, specific, and applicable.

At Pixar and other organizations, employees are asked to follow three rules for feedback: Be straightforward in both how you address a person and what you say about him or her; identify the particular behavior that worked (or didn’t); and describe the impact of the behavior on you and others.

Add a “plus” to others’ ideas.

Whenever a Pixar employee comments on a colleague’s idea or work during a brainstorming session, he or she must offer a “plus”—a suggestion for an improvement that doesn’t include judgment or harsh language. Pixar employees told me that this approach draws on three principles of improv comedy: First, accept all offers—that is, embrace the idea instead of rejecting it. Second, to ensure that you’re building on someone’s idea, say “Yes, and…” rather than “Yes, but…” Third, make your teammate look good by enhancing the scene or project he or she has started.

Provide live coaching.

Though tactics like plussing are well understood at Pixar, it isn’t always easy for employees at the company to put them into practice. For this reason, coaches there attend brainstorming meetings to reinforce good approaches and point out lapses. If a comment or a question doesn’t show “collaborative spirit,” the coach will ask that it be rephrased.

4. Teach People to Lead and Follow

A lot of attention is paid, in the literature and in the practice of management, to what makes a truly effective leader. There has been much less consideration of how to follow, though that, too, is an important skill. In interviews at American Express, I learned that the company’s best collaborators—those known for adding value to interactions and solving problems in ways that left everyone better off—are adept at both leading and following, moving smoothly between the two as appropriate. That is, they’re good at flexing.

5. Speak with Clarity and Avoid Abstractions

In any collaboration there are times for open discussion of ideas and times when someone, regardless of whether he or she is a leader, needs to cut through the confusion and clearly articulate the path forward. When we communicate with others, psychological research shows, we are often too indirect and abstract. Our words would carry more weight if we were more concrete and provided vivid images of goals.

6. Train People to Have Win-Win Interactions

Try this: Ask teams to work in pairs to think through how to divide an orange. Each partner is told, without the other’s knowledge, a reason for wanting the fruit: One needs to make juice, and the other needs the peel for a muffin recipe. If they fail to explore each other’s interests, as most pairs do, the partners may end up fighting over the orange. Or they may decide to cut it in half, giving each side an equal if smaller-than-ideal share. Some people even quit when they can’t get the whole orange.

Leaders who are frustrated by a lack of collaboration can start by asking themselves a simple question: What have they done to encourage it today? It is only by regularly owning their own mistakes, listening actively and supportively to people’s ideas, and being respectful but direct when challenging others’ views and behavior that they can encourage lasting collaboration. By training people to employ the six techniques, leaders can make creative, productive teamwork a way of life.

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