Creating a collaborative workplace culture requires a lot more than just knocking down walls and rolling out some whiteboards. It’s a mindset.
“A great collaborative culture creates an environment where folks want to help one another and want to create that ‘communal brain,’ where good individual ideas are turned into collective intelligence,” says Thea Spitzer, author of “The Power of Collaboration: Powerful Insights From Silicon Valley to Successfully Grow Groups, Strengthen Alliances, and Boost Team Potential.” “The bottom line is that collaboration done well adds that buzz of excitement, and takes people from compliance to commitment.”
Here’s how to build a collaborative workplace culture that goes beyond the superficial.
Define What Collaboration Means to You
Just as your business goals, culture and values differ from those at other companies, your version of collaboration will be unique as well. At Facebook, collaboration is expressed through transparency, Spitzer says: Everyone gets the same information, and that creates a feeling that everyone’s in it together. At Google, collaboration emerges from the collision of ideas that results from a fun workplace where people physically interact through innovative spaces.
Figuring out what the “collaborative ethos” is at your organization can be a fun and revealing process, Spitzer says. Dedicate some time to establishing your shared values as a team.
Clear Out Obstacles to Group Work
Organizational practices must support collaboration, Spitzer says. Too often, the way people work, gain skills and advance can actually undermine or squelch collaboration because they incentivize people to focus on their own individual goals. Shared goals should support individual and business objectives, and the way managers give feedback and supervise projects and should all support collaboration rather than discourage it, she says.
“Help folks learn how they work best, and then encourage them to learn to articulate these needs to those they work with or alongside,” says Amma Marfo, a leadership and group dynamics expert and author of “Cultivating Creativity.” Personality inventories or assessments can be helpful, she says: “Any opportunity that people have to learn what their differences mean for their efficacy and not just to provide labels is a positive one.”
Encourage people to tease out good ideas from each other, then work on them together without keeping score or worrying about winning or losing, Spitzer says. This may require a culture change within your organization to recognize and reward behaviors that uphold the collaboration ethos you’ve defined for your company, she says.
Managers should also keep in mind that that collaborative work does take longer than individual work, Marfo says, and will need to adjust their expectations accordingly. Hold people to deadlines, but find a balance between urgency and patience, she says.
Foster a Spirit of Trust
People simply won’t share with others they don’t trust, whether it’s ideas, support or credit. “Collaboration only takes place if purpose and trust are in place,” says Joe Carella, assistant dean of executive education at the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona. “Consider those the compass that directs teams and organizations to higher accomplishments. Without these, neuroscience tells us that individuals focus on special interests and short-term goals.”
A culture of collaboration will fail without establishing trust, as people won’t display the behaviors that “grease the wheels” of teamwork, such as good listening skills, Spitzer says. Organizations must build a culture that lets people fail and that supports behaviors and characteristics that establish common ground.
And keep in mind that trust won’t prevent disagreement. “Expect conflict or disagreement to arise,” Marfo says. “Even those who like one another and want the same things from a given project will clash. If or when they do, encourage teams to lean on their trust and knowledge of work styles to address the issue in its own right.” As employees learn that everyone is truly holding the same goal in sight, it can be easier to work through issues.
Building a culture of collaboration may sound overwhelming, Spitzer says, but she says most companies are working on these factors all the time. “They just don’t put a collaborative filter on it,” she says. “It really isn’t about doing more work, it’s just doing it with collaborative outcomes in mind.”