Strategies for Better Workplace Collaboration
by Carol Kinsey Goman
Most leaders agree that effective collaboration is more important than ever in today’s turbulent business environment. A do-more-with-less reality requires ongoing teamwork to produce innovative, cost-effective, and targeted products and services. In fact, a company’s very survival may depend on how well it can combine the potential of its people and the quality of the information they possess with their ability—and willingness—to share that knowledge throughout the organization.
But here’s the problem.
The collaboration that is so critical to organizations is being blocked by knowledge-hoarding silo structures and the accompanying silo mentality that leads to power struggles, lack of cooperation, and loss of productivity.
So what’s to be done? Here are the strategies I’ve found most successful during my 25 years of work with clients.
• Build a culture of trust. Trust is the foundation for collaboration, the conduit through which knowledge flows. Without trust, an organization loses its emotional glue. In a culture of suspicion, people withhold information, hide behind psychological walls, and withdraw from participation.
• Unify goals. Business-unit leaders must understand the overarching goals of the total organization and the importance of working in concert with other areas to achieve those crucial objectives.
• Create physical environments that stimulate both arranged and chance encounters. Attractive break-out areas, coffee bars, comfortable cafeteria chairs, even wide landings on staircases—all these increase the likelihood that employees will meet and linger to talk. As Xerox, among others, has discovered, real learning doesn’t take place in any formal setting. People learn more from comparing experiences in hallways than from reading company manuals, going online to a knowledge repository, or attending training sessions.
• Find ways to acknowledge collaborative contributors. Recognize and reward people who share knowledge, teach, mentor, and work across departmental boundaries. And penalize those who do not. All best-practices companies impose serious career consequences for those who hoard knowledge and fail to build on the ideas of others.
• Watch your body language. All leaders express enthusiasm, warmth, and confidence, but also arrogance, indifference, and displeasure through their expressions, gestures, touch, and use of space. To be perceived as credible and collaborative, leaders need to make sure that their verbal messages are supported (not sabotaged) by their nonverbal signals.
• Focus on the customer. Nothing is more important in an organization, whether it’s for-profit or nonprofit, than staying close to the end user of what you offer, and encouraging feedback and two-way dialogue. When you build collaborative relationships with your customers, you give them power and get them invested in your organization’s success.
• Get the benefits of diversity. Experiments at the University of Michigan found that, when challenged with a difficult problem, groups composed of highly adept members performed worse than groups whose members had varying levels of skill and knowledge. The reason for this seemingly odd outcome has to do with the power of diverse thinking. Group members who think alike or are trained in similar disciplines with similar knowledge bases run the risk of becoming insular. Instead of exploring alternatives, they allow a confirmation bias to take over and tend to reinforce one another’s predispositions. Creativity is triggered by cross-pollination. Creative breakthroughs occur most often when ideas collide and combine.
• Eliminate the barriers to a free flow of ideas by making it clear that people are free to ask “dumb” questions, challenge the status quo, and offer novel–even bizarre—suggestions. Everyone has knowledge that is important to someone else, and you can never be sure whose input is going to become an essential part of the solution. When insights and opinions are ridiculed, criticized, or ignored, people feel threatened and punished for contributing, and they typically react by declining to contribute to the conversation.
• Challenge the “knowledge is power” attitude. Knowledge is no longer a commodity like gold that holds or increases its worth over time. It’s more like milk—fluid, evolving, and stamped with an expiration date. And, by the way, there is nothing less powerful than hanging on to knowledge whose time has expired.
• Realize that there are two kinds of knowledge in your organization. Explicit knowledge can be transferred in a document or entered in a database. Tacit knowledge needs a conversation, a story, a relationship. Make sure you are developing strategies to capture both.
• Ask the right questions. At the beginning of a project, ask: What information/knowledge do we need? Who are the experts? Who in the organization has done this before? Do we have this on a database? Who else will need to know what we learn? How do we plan to share/hand off what we learn?
• Communicate through stories—of successes, failures, opportunities, challenges, and knowledge accumulated through experience. Find those stories throughout your organization. Record them. Share them.
• Insist on open and transparent communication. The way information is handled determines whether it becomes an obstacle to or an enabler of collaboration. Employees today need access to information at any time. From any place.
• Accelerate the flow of knowledge and information across boundaries by encouraging workplace relationships and communities. Employees with multiple networks throughout the company facilitate collaboration. You can use a tool like Social Network Analysis (SNA) to create a visual model of current networks so you can reinforce the connections and help fill the gaps.
• Utilize Web 2.0 technologies to collaborate by sharing opinions, insights, experiences, and perspectives.
• Nurture collaboration within your own work group or staff by taking the time and effort necessary to make people feel safe and valued. Emphasize people’s strengths while encouraging sharing of mistakes and lessons learned. Set clear expectations for outcomes and clarify individual roles to help all members recognize what each of them brings to the team.
• Rotate personnel in various jobs and departments around the organization by creating cross-functional teams and by inviting managers from other areas of the organization to attend, or lead, your team meetings.
• Rely on guidance by managers who know how to harness the energies and talents of others while keeping their own egos in check. Successful organizations require leaders at all levels who manage through positive influence and inclusion rather than by position.
• Help employees get to know one another as individuals. When you hold offsite retreats, organization-wide celebrations, or workplace events, be sure to provide opportunities for “social” time and personal relationships. Building this “social capital” at the beginning of a project will also increase the effectiveness of a team later on.
• Analyze and learn from failure. Leading innovators look for insights from their failures as much as from their successes. The goal is not to eliminate all errors; it’s to analyze mistakes so that systems can be configured to detect and correct them quickly, before they become fatal.
• Remember that collaborative cultures are learning cultures. Knowledge sharing is an ongoing process, not an end point.
• Finally, and crucially for making collaboration work, treat all employees as your partners. Because they are.
Carol Kinsey Goman, a keynote speaker, executive coach, and management consultant, is the author of 10 books, including The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work and Ghost Story, a business fable about the power of knowledge sharing. To contact her, call 510/526-1727, or email CGoman@CKG.com. To learn more, visit CKG.com and NonverbalAdvantage.com.