Want Better Collaboration? Shift Your Thinking

by Shani Harmon and Renee Cullinan
Republished form Forbes, June 7, 2018

When trying to solve everyday challenges in their organizations – be it missing deadlines, revisiting decisions, partnering across functional or geographic boundaries, or speeding up output – leaders often assume the root cause is lack of skill.

While skill development is often part of the solution, unleashing effective collaboration requires viewing the problem as what Ron Heifetz calls an adaptive challenge, rather than a technical one. An adaptive challenge is one which requires individuals to change their way of thinking about themselves, their work, and the situation at hand.

Take a simple example: meetings. Most people know how to craft an agenda, prepare materials, and have thoughtful dialogue that results in a tangible outcome, yet 25% of all meeting time is wasted. The solution is more complex than a conference room sign extolling the “Five simple rules of effective meetings.” Leaders looking to establish a higher level of collaborative performance need to take a moment and consider the implicit signals they might be sending.

The single greatest leverage point for improved collaboration lies with the leaders. When leaders role-model high-quality collaborative practices, their teams are much more likely to look for mutually beneficial solutions, to use time judiciously, and to follow-through on their commitments. On the other hand, as demonstrated by objective data extracted from Microsoft Workplace Analytics, managers who indulge in sloppy collaborative behaviors have teams who are significantly more likely to do so.

Here are the three mindset shifts you can make to catalyze more effective collaboration in your organization.

Encourage collaboration, not competition. For years the dominant paradigm in organizational life was zero-sum thinking. It’s baked into forced ranking assessments and encouraged by up or out policies. When managers adopt the mindset that everyone has unique genius to contribute and that the leader’s job is to find and unleash it, the tone changes quite dramatically. Competition puts our brain into “defend” mode whereas real collaboration opens us up to “discover” new possibilities.

Try this: Force yourself to only speak positively about other departments and leaders in your organization. Go out of your way to find ways to support them and their work.

Give your team your full attention. As a leader, your attention is a precious resource and where you choose to place it signals what really matters. Every day, there are dozens of competing priorities clamoring for your time and too often, leaders let the noisiest claim the prize. By consciously focusing on each conversation you are in, you send an important signal to your team about how much you value them and their work. You’ll also make yourself smarter because your ability to make non-routine connections between pieces of information goes up significantly based on your level of active listening.

Try this: Leave your phone in your bag or at your desk for every meeting that matters. Point it out to your team as a signal of your commitment to the conversation you are in.

Ask before you answer. For most of us, it’s counterintuitive that asking questions is a much more effective leadership approach than providing an answer. By giving our teams an opportunity to find the answers for themselves, we develop their judgment faster and encourage more creative problem-solving. This discovery is radically changing the K-12 education paradigm around the world, but is infiltrating the corporate world much more slowly.

Try this: The next time your team seeks your guidance on something, engage only through questions such as “What options have you considered already?” or “What criteria are you using to make the decision?”

Simple shifts in leadership mindset and behaviors can have an outsized effect on the speed and effectiveness of collaboration in your organization. If you’re looking for a lever, look no further. You are it.


FORBES 060718