Collaboration’s Biggest Misconception

Traditional thinking is that collaboration is driven from the top down. The fatal assumption is this: that the leader sets a vision for teamwork and then people will eventually come along. In theory this makes sense, and some element of this is true. Yet it misses something essential: employees hold the keys.

The fact is that much of collaborative process comes from the bottom up. Yes the leader must have a business need driving the need for collaboration such as innovation to beat the competition, quicker responsiveness to customers’ requests to close deals, better quality products. And they must enthusiastically and frequently communicate this desire to their people. Yet it is the people who have to make it happen.

Great teamwork exists when the members of the team, not the management, hold themselves accountable to achieving a high-water mark.

Zappos is a perfect example. Recently they disclosed that 18% of employees left the company last year who worked in their new team-based collaboration structure. That is very high turnover. The word on the street is that it is due to the executives forcing people to collaborate. They implemented Holacracy, a non hierarchical organizational structure that puts people in teams. This doesn’t mean that Holacracy is bad, rather that if it is implemented in a top-down manner it won’t work.

Contrary to that, WL GORE, the makers of Gortex, have worked in a non-hierarchical, collaborative manner for decades. Yet their system works well. For example, if you want to do a project, the leader has to lobby others for money. To get the budget assigned, they have to convince them that it is value added. This is a completely bottom-up approach to collaboration.

I am consulting to several CEO’s and executives (and their teams) right now to create more collaboration. What I am finding is that they are under the misconception that they can drive collaboration from the top. They want to ask for it, encourage it, and demand it (in some cases) and believe that people will “come around.” Yet at some point they hit a road block: their team. Changing long standing company culture behavior can only happen when the people choose to do it, when they take it upon themselves to desire and create a collaborative environment, rather than a conflicted and political environment.

One executive recently was frustrated that his top team wasn’t collaborating to advance the new framework of the business. “They are resisting” were his exact words. Resistance means people are pushing back on something being forced on them. After interviewing each team member, I discovered that despite his thinking to the contrary, they do not understand and/or agree with the big picture of where he wants to head the business. When I asked them the mission, many gave tepid statements that could be found in the annual report of any company. Empty words. They did not have the clarity and passion that he had, so of course they would not collaborate—they didn’t have the same end in mind.

The truth lies in taking the time to allow people space to uncover and commit to collaboration.

•  First is your obligation and responsibility to create a space for people to wrestle with the purpose of the journey. Rather than simply advocating and building the case, have conversations to enable your team to clarify in order to believe in it. Let them work out the nuances of what it means to them. Then you are co-creating meaning, which will mean increased commitment. Collaborate on it and co-create the meaning, and as a result, they will be committed.

•  Even as you move forward and seem to be making progress, you have to stop and check in: “What do they need to collaborate more?” Let them tell you they need from you. Give then space and a structure to tell each other what they need from each other to build the trust needed. Then let them work with each other to get what they need.

•  Instead of asking for collaboration, ask for generosity. You cannot and will not have collaboration without generosity. Like with great military units who are in it for their fellow troops, they are not thinking so much about winning the battles, but are thinking of having each others’ backs. If people are selfish and only thinking of themselves, then they will never collaborate. They must be thinking of putting others first. Be the generosity role model. Lend an ear and a hand when people need it.

I can always tell a great team—it is when members of the team, not the management, hold themselves accountable to achieving a high-water mark. This is a sign that the leader understands that collaboration will not come from his imperative, rather only from the hearts and minds of the people he is leading.


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