Collaboration: The high wire act

Hard problems are solved more easily when people work together. If you take a look at Nobel Prize winners over the last hundred years, there’s a steady upward trend in the number of people who’ve shared the prize in almost every category. 

Many of us need to collaborate to do our jobs these days. According to Mckinsey up to 40 per cent of jobs involve high degrees of interdependence. One of the key benefits of collaboration is innovation. Yet organisations tend to still focus on individualistic measures when hiring, discussing development or reviewing performance. In reality our individual success is dependent on the people with whom we work. To address this imbalance, organisations are quite rightly thinking about how they can encourage effective collaboration.

One of the first things that needs to be grasped is when to collaborate. Collaboration is no panacea. There’s a balancing act between productive, innovative collaboration and collaborative overload. A tipping point between innovative discussions and endless meetings.  

Rob Cross and Peter Gray of the University of Virginia’s business school recently warned of the curse of collaboration in the Economist highlighting that knowledge workers spend 70-85 per cent of their time collaborating; “attending meetings, dealing with email, talking on the phone or responding to requests for input or advice”. In the last twenty years collaborative activities have increased by more than 50 per cent and there comes a point where we need to question whether we’re meeting for a purpose or out of habit.

We know the feeling when the “dark side of collaboration” affects our productivity: useless meetings, meaningless emails cc’d to the whole office, etc. We may feel forced to take work home or work over holidays which has a negative impact on our work-life balance, stress-levels and general wellbeing.

So how can we make collaboration work?

Start with goals

Which goals require us to collaborate with others is the first question to ask. “Do team members need to apply different skills or perspectives for an improvement that one member couldn’t achieve?”

We often see teams with a clear strategy, high level goals (eg to improve customer service), but the sub-goals (eg to improve the way we communicate) are not so well defined or explicitly owned by a group with a clear plan to achieve it. So instead of collaboration taking place, just one person takes accountability for moving the goal forward. They may flounder due to lack of support from others. Sub-teams are often better off being self-led. In this situation, if one member fails to deliver, the whole team will fail. Collective responsibility prevails. If, however, the sub-team requires more input from some members than others, then it might be more appropriate for the team to have a leader. In this case an empowering, facilitating and helpful type of leadership will again foster more collaboration.

Lead with collaboration in mind

Did you know that the alpha male in any cartload of chimpanzees is the chimp who connects the other chimps together, who makes the other chimps feel at ease and who is generally the most helpful chimp? If we want to see collaboration work in an office environment then we need leaders who are essentially like alpha male chimps. This means team leaders that get out of the way, empower and trust their sub-teams to manage themselves - this will foster more collaboration.

Develop psychological safety

This term was coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” Without some form of interpersonal risk taking, a collaborative unit will rarely get to the heart of the matter, manage its own process, challenge or influence each other, or demonstrate creativity- all of which are well known drivers of good collaboration. Edmondson highlights a number of ways a team leader can create the environment conducive to creating high levels of psychological safety: use supportive language; don’t interrupt; ask for help; seek feedback; acknowledge the ideas of others even if you disagree; be accessible; acknowledge mistakes; encouraging dissent;  admit when you don’t know; embrace failure as learning.

Collaboration is a result of the disciplines of goal setting, empowering leadership and promoting high levels of psychological safety amongst other things. All are required for it to work or, like a pack of cards, the collaborative ‘house’ will come tumbling down.

This article was written by Tom Marsden, CEO of Saberr, and George Karseras, a team coach and chartered occupational and sports psychologist. They are collaborating on the development of CoachBot a digital coach for teams.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Please see for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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