5 Requirements for Leading Collaborative Teams

Hayley Panagakis

20 October 2020

Ah, collaboration. All teams do it, but not all do it well. As Carla Harris, vice chairman and managing director at Morgan Stanley, shares in her talk at Leadercast Live 2019, a healthy team embraces collaboration. “In fact, they get excited,” she says. “They get more productive when they can work on something together.”

I’ve had the privilege of working in highly collaborative teams where success relies equally, and heavily, on everyone involved. Through this, I’ve learned collaboration can be… messy. Really, anything involving humans interacting with one another can turn to chaos. We humans are competitive, opinionated and fallible—all qualities that have the potential to derail collaboration.

I think the best course of action for leaders is to consistently consider your workplace culture and think about what is and isn’t supporting collaboration for your team.

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How can leaders build teams that overcome these qualities? How can they establish teams that not only collaborate, but excel at it? I’m not an expert in the subject, but I have learned there are a few requirements leaders should adhere to if they want to lead the kind of team that embraces collaboration like Carla describes.

1. Set your ego aside.
Women’s soccer legend Abby Wambach, who spoke at last week’s Leadercast 2020—Ripple Effect virtual event, says one of the most difficult things as a teammate is watching others succeed. Leaders like Abby can be highly competitive, and that’s OK, but they must understand that success doesn’t happen alone.

“Success comes from everybody participating,” says Abby. She notes that if you score a goal in your work, you better be pointing and celebrating the person who passed you the ball. It’s a collaborative effort, and you should be genuinely happy when others score, too. 

In fact, as the leader you should strive to help others score their goals. When leaders set their egos on the sidelines, they discover their leadership was never really about them in the first place. Great leaders are servants to those they lead. They are like Sherpas, who don’t sit at the top of the mountain waiting for others to admire their success. They serve as guides, climbing alongside others to help them reach the top, equipping them with what they need to achieve and providing clarity on where they need to go. 

2. Know there is anI” in team. OK, not in the way you’re thinking that would negate the point above. The “I” in team refers to the understanding that a team is made up of individuals. Collaboration happens in groups composed of people with different personalities, opinions, backgrounds, levels of expertise, etc. Both you and your team members should strive to really get to know one another. Learn preferred work styles and communication methods, and discover each other’s strengths and weaknesses in order to thrive. 

As Abby explains in her talk, a team melds and connects by overlapping strengths and weaknesses, where one person’s weaknesses are so important to engaging another person’s strengths. “Even our weaknesses and strengths can be championed by each other,” she says. 

Additionally, get to know people for more than the work they do. Not only does getting to know individuals on a personal level allow for better connection, it gives you additional insight into their strengths outside the workplace. 

3. Seek diversity. Studies show that collaboration happens best when it is made up of a diverse group of individuals. According to McKinsey & Company, racially and ethnically diverse businesses are 35 percent more likely to perform better than their less diverse competitors. And according to a two-year study by Cloverpop, teams that are age, gender and geographically diverse make better decisions 87 percent of the time. 

One such example is the 2018 Tham Luang Nang Non cave rescue mission in Thailand, where 12 young soccer players and their coach were trapped inside a flooded cave system. During the 17 days it took for them to be rescued, local and international divers, doctors and experts worked past language barriers to combine their diverse set of knowledge, backgrounds and expertise to come up with an intricate plan that got all boys and their coach home safely, but claiming the lives of two rescuers. 

The feat was nothing short of a miracle and might not have been possible without the diverse group of heroes that made it happen. While your team may not be operating in a life-or-death situation like this one, diversity and inclusion are key to collaboration, paving the way for innovation, improving performance and decision-making, and inevitably increasing your bottom line. 

4. Pick your battles. It’s a given in life that not everyone will agree with you. But when you’re the leader of a collaborative team where decisions have to be made to move forward, differences in opinion can cost you time and money.

Using myself as an example, I used to work at a magazine where I served as a writer and editor. This involved editing the magazine layout after the design team artistically placed all the writing as it would appear for the reader. There were countless times I would go back and forth with the designers on their art choices, not because there were errors (maybe captions or photo credits were missing or the incorrect image was used), but because my opinion differed from theirs on how the story should be portrayed visually. 

When you’re working on a collaborative team, back and forth is healthy and beneficial—most days the designers and I would provide a constant loop of feedback to one another to create the most polished magazines we could. Other days, the back and forth looked more like goats butting heads as we clung to our preference, killing productivity in the process. 

It wasn’t until I reached my next job that a colleague opened my eyes to an age-old question that can be used as a powerful tool in collaboration: “Is this a hill worth dying on?” Now, when I feel more like a goat than a teammate and find myself in a scenario where we can’t seem to compromise, I ask myself that question. Most of the time, it isn’t worth it and we are able to move on. 

5. Consider your workplace culture. As Stephanie Mehta, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, points out in her talk at Leadercast 2020—Ripple Effect, collaboration can be greatly affected by workplace culture. She brings up the concept of open offices. While they’ve been around since the 1940s, open offices became a cultural phenomenon when Google and the startups of Silicon Valley began relying on them heavily. In an attempt to save on costs and be innovative like these companies, leaders outside the tech world adopted open offices for their organizations, too. They thought people would interact more in an open-office setting than in private offices. 

The result? Collaboration actually declined. A study by Harvard Business Review found that open-floor plans reduced face-to-face communication by 70 percent; due to a lack of soundproofing, people began wearing headphones to drown out noise and limit distractions, and email and instant messaging increased. 

All that to say, when leaders make decisions that impact workplace culture like in the case of open offices, collaboration can suffer. Now, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, you may be faced with a different challenge to collaboration in the form of remote work. In that same study by HBR, researchers found remote workers communicated nearly 80 percent less than their in-office peers. But as the article also points out, “A single best physical or digital workspace architecture will never be found. That’s because more interaction is not necessarily better, nor is less.” Sometimes we need to collaborate, sometimes we need to isolate—designing an environment that’s conducive to both has proven tough to achieve. 

I think the best course of action for leaders is to consistently consider your workplace culture and think about what is and isn’t supporting collaboration for your team. Get feedback from those who work for you and alter your workplace as needed. Additionally, you can also go for a change of scenery every once in a while. It might have to wait until after the world settles amid the pandemic, but I know some of the most collaborative brainstorming sessions I’ve been part of tended to take place away from the office. 

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the steps leaders need to take to build collaborative teams, but I hope this serves as a good starting point for you. Collaboration is messy. Egos will rear their ugly heads, conflicts will arise and the need for a Sherpa will become evident, but it can be achieved when leaders are intentional about making it happen.

Hayley Panagakis

This blog was written by Hayley Panagakis, a freelance writer, editor and content creator. Connect with her on LinkedIn and visit her website to learn more about her services.

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