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Collaboration in the Workplace

Have you ever noticed how your perceptions and those of others often don’t match?

It is said that we all hold “a piece of the pie.” This is why collaboration is necessary and usually advantageous at work: to gain access to unfamiliar territory and the new resources that live in other people. Indeed, to get things done, learn, and improve, your colleagues, yes, even your boss, it could come in handy from time to time.

Collaboration is more than just working together cooperatively (“teamwork”), more than going along (accommodating) or getting along … it is that remarkable and unpredictable chaos, complexity and creative stuff that makes life interesting. Admittedly, sometimes too interesting..

Look Within, or Look Out!

Reflect for a moment on your own workplace. When was the last time you had a conversation that didn’t go well? Do you normally come back to those less-than-delightful moments to gain a sense of resolution?  How, usually? Do you resolve it inside your own head or do you get in their face? Where there’s been some interpersonal friction, people naturally tend toward one extreme or the other to cover up the fact that we feel either threatened or embarrassed.

Even if you attempt resolution inside your own head (“Oh, he’s just a jerk!”), or through a third party (“Can you believe what a jerk he is?!”), or with the person directly (“I’m sorry, but I don’t feel complete about X; perhaps there’s been a misunderstanding .”), you aren’t necessarily collaborating.

When does it make sense to collaborate?  There are at least four situations where a collaborative approach is essential:

 

  • When you need to increase cooperation – collaboration helps deal with differences before they lead to resistance or begin to prevent understanding.

 

  • When you want stewardship (not micro-delegation or micro-management) – whether kicking off an important project or change initiative, stewards “go slow to go fast” with the right input from all the right players up front.

 

  • When you need a more complete perspective – collaboration allows for useful feedback, so rather than hallucinating (filling in blind spots from your own perceptions), you can push back on limited assumptions and gain new awareness.

 

  • When there has been a breakdown or problem with another person– collaboration provides the most tactful way of building accountability, trust and safety, while bringing about lasting change.

 

 

With collaborative approaches – in contrast with one-way, autocratic or dictatorial – leaders at all levels use an inclusive style that balances assertiveness (focus on goal or task achievement) with gaining cooperation and commitment (flexibility and consideration in relating to others).

There are several sharp advantages to this approach and (the best part) there are no significant downsides, except perhaps an upfront investment of time that is perpetually scarce.  This is one of the few areas of business where there are no real tradeoffs or conflicts of interest:  if you include people and treat them with respect, you won’t pay a price (it doesn’t cost you or the company any more); in fact, inclusion and participation makes for a better, more enjoyable and productive workplace.

Sure, you can still force “cooperation,” especially if you have positional power, but why needlessly risk backlash, resentment or substandard results.  Since no one person can have all the answers, the chain-of-command approach often “orders” mediocre quality.

Understanding other people and using your “soft skills” doesn’t make you a “soft” leader.  Quite to the contrary, in fact; with practice, collaborative approaches can be more powerful, enabling you to lead more strongly and quickly toward the desired results.  The more rapport you have, for example, the more room there is for intensity and passion in leading toward your goals, even and especially if there’s disagreement about methods or priorities.  This is simply because there’s more of a genuine win-win when the other person feels included, consulted, respected.

Interpersonally, you can be more directive once you demonstrate that their views have been acknowledged.  It’s the core psychology of negotiation: we listen better once we’ve been heard.


Author: Lisa Rezac, Date Published: November 28, 2012

Lisa Rezac was an instructor for The Leader's Institute ® from 2011-2013. For more details, you can find her on LinkedIn.

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