It’s pretty obvious why we are encouraged to work in groups or in teams: seldom do any of us solve problems by ourselves. We have to work with others, or collaborate, to create viable and profitable solutions. More importantly, we need to learn how to collaborate. Most schools and colleges don’t actively teach people the means to that end. While the emphasis on the importance of collaboration is there, an understanding of tools and principles around collaboration don’t find their way into formal curriculum.
Interestingly, even companies, and the larger world of work, that is so dependent on collaboration to achieve goals doesn’t train us to become good collaborators. Often, our comprehension of the concept of collaboration is limited. People believe collaboration means to get along and work together to get the job done. But is it that simple?
Kenwyn Smith, professor of organizational behaviour, social policy and practice at University of Pennsylvania, makes the point that collaboration is really about group dynamics, and what gets in the way of collaboration is often the interpersonal dynamics within members.
In organizational lingo, team is the accepted vocabulary to use to define a unit of people. Yet, the concept of a team is actually the wrong analogy to use because it originated from the world of sport. In sport, teams are created with the core purpose of winning. Individual achievements must contribute to team victory. In the workplace, winning isn’t the main purpose of the team. For one, you want all teams to win, but not at the cost of each other, and without the high that memorable moments of victory bring. Team dynamics at work should actually be rooted in the principle of group dynamics, and not of victory, and focus on interpersonal relationships. Knowing how to collaborate is knowing how to successfully use your social and emotional skills at the workplace in a productive manner.
The habit of collaboration is very much a learnable skill. We believe you can build your habit by developing these skills.
Establish trust: We value trust at the workplace but don’t quite know how to build trust and nurture it. If you are able to surround yourself with people with whom you can be open and honest in your thoughts and actions, it takes an incredible amount of stress off your shoulders. For example, how do you trust a colleague who always takes all the credit for the work you have done together?
Manage teamwork: This is essentially about realizing that all groups go through predictable stages of how any group evolves; and therefore needs to shape behaviour depending on where they are on their journey. Before it starts to solve for the tasks and problems it’s been created for, can it solve for the way it works together. For example, do you set group working norms on every team you are part of before you dive into the work?
Navigate workplaces: As tasks become complex, the scope of collaboration spreads. It results in large teams and even larger organizations. This gives rise to hierarchies and power centres. An understanding of how an organization functions will help you have a balanced perspective of power, politics, culture, hierarchies and figure your way around them. For example, in workplaces that are open and non-hierarchical, how do you establish accountability and authority?
Negotiate wisely: Every time you collaborate, you are bound to negotiate or find yourself in a situation that requires negotiation. The purpose is generally to get an acceptance of either your own perspective or your team’s, and move to a decision, approach or idea you believe is the best solution. Being able to successfully negotiate, without burning bridges and creating enemies, is a valuable professional skill to master. For example, how do you make sure that your first offer doesn’t become limiting to you getting the best-case option from a situation?
Expand networks: Humans are naturally social creatures. We crave friendship and positive interactions. It’s what helps us to collaborate. The more you are able to reach out and tap your colleagues and acquaintances, the better you are at networking. Expanding your network equals building or adding to your gamut of good relationships. Many of us find it emotionally draining but a lot of it is really just about taking the first positive step towards someone. For example, how do you build relationships with a senior professional outside your company?
Art of Work is a five-part series about habits critical to career success.
Pramath Raj Sinha and Shreyasi Singh are founders of an online learning venture that helps professionals and students build career enhancing habits.