How (and why) to collaborate effectively

More than ever before, collaboration is encouraged to ensure the best thinking comes through and that organisations create an environment that enables people to fulfil their potential. That’s why this month’s issue looks at how to collaborate effectively in the workplace, giving you both theory and practical suggestions for you to apply.

Why collaborate?

There are four main reasons why collaboration leads to higher productivity and performance for your business unit and the organisation.

  • Quality thinking
    Diversity of thought means the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This also enables innovation
  • Buy-in from stakeholders
    Other people will be emotionally and practically committed to your cause
  • Share the workload
    You can release some of the pressure on yourself!
  • Learning and growth
    Personal development for yourself, others, and at organisational level

This links to my previous articles about innovation, Appreciative Inquiry, and influencing skills.

What makes collaboration difficult?   

I can think of three main areas where the concept of collaboration might cause difficulty. Here they are, with suggestions to help you overcome these concerns:

You might worry that taking time to collect and discuss other people’s views would slow down decision-making. However, in the long run, collaboration should actually save time because you would be making better quality decisions in the first place, with more buy-in from stakeholders. There is also a greater chance that you will have thought of things to help implement and, importantly, sustain the decision.

It can feel uncomfortable when you work with people whose views differ from your own. But keeping an open mind can make the discussion more interesting, and the advantages that arise from considering differing opinions should outweigh any personal discomfort.

Finally, you might have to accept that you won’t always get your own way! If you approach something with a truly collaborative mindset, it won’t feel as though you are losing but that you are creating something together. Remember, the best leaders are not ego-led, but instead show humility. For more on this, please see my article on the role of the leader.

“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
George Bernard Shaw

Introducing the SCARF model    

The SCARF model was first introduced in 2008 and stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. A wide range of neuro-science research has been conducted to explore these domains, with all five having an impact on a person’s perception of a social situation.

In social situations – that is, when we are interacting with other people whether inside or outside the working context – our brains are scanning our environment to decide whether it is threatening or rewarding.

I find this model helps people understand why they react the way they do – for example, during organisational change when there can be great uncertainty and shifting power bases. It’s also useful when working with cross-functional teams, because of the need to deal with many different viewpoints and approaches.

SCARF is a useful model when thinking of collaboration at work, particularly as it raises your own self-awareness, which is the first step towards deciding how you want to respond:

S = Status
Refers to your sense of importance relative to others

C = Certainty
Refers to your need for clarity, and the ability to make accurate predictions about the future

A = Autonomy
This is tied to a sense of control over the events in your life, and the perception that your behaviour has an effect on the outcome of a situation

R = Relatedness
This concerns your sense of connection to, and security with, another person, for example, whether someone is perceived as similar or different to yourself

F = Fairness
The just and non-biased exchange between people

The SCARF model is built on three central ideas:

  1. The brain treats many social threats and rewards with the same intensity as physical threats and rewards
    (Source: Lieberman and Eisenberger, 2008)
  2. The capacity to make decisions, solve problems, and collaborate with others is generally reduced by a threat response and increased under a reward response (Source Elliott, 2008)
  3. The threat response is more intense, more common, and often needs to be carefully minimised in social interactions
    (Source: Baumeister, Bratstavsky, Finkenauer and Vohs, 2001)

Research (Heatherton, 2011) showed that humans have a fundamental need to belong, are incredibly sensitive to their social context, and are strongly motivated to remain in good standing with their social group and avoid exclusion.

Maybe you can relate to a situation where you had a fear of looking bad in front of your peers and remember the impact this had on your ability to apply high-quality perception, cognition, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration. Leaders of teams in particular have a significant role to play in creating a safe environment to minimise the perceived Threats and optimise the perceived Rewards.

To expand on these ideas, please read this PDF online or email me and I will send you a copy.

You may also find it useful to revisit my articles introducing leadership agility and the leadership agility compass, as they address how to approach managing stakeholders and your own behaviour in the moment.

How to encourage people who don’t want to talk

When people won’t open up, another useful model is AMPP from the book Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson et al. A crucial conversation is when:

  • There are opposing opinions
  • There are strong emotions
  • The stakes are high

This process, shown below, encourages others to share their feelings frankly. It is then possible to work through any problems to encourage collaboration and a productive, harmonious working environment.

If you decide to give it a go, it is critical throughout the process that you role model a non-judgmental, calm and curious manner.

Work through the process, starting with Ask and moving through the steps if required – it may be that just the first step is sufficient.

A = Ask
The easiest and most straightforward way to encourage someone to share their feelings is simply to ask them. The key is to show genuine interest. For example: “I’d really like to have your opinion on this.”

M = Mirror
If they haven’t opened up, or just say “I’m fine”, play the role of a mirror by reflecting what you see and hear. Reflect on the difference between their words, tone of voice and body language, for example: “You say you are okay but by your tone of voice you seem upset”. Use calm, non-judgmental body language, eye contact and tone of voice so you show it’s okay for them to feel whatever they feel.

P = Paraphrase
Acknowledge what you are hearing, still showing that you are not judging. It’s important you don’t just repeat what they said, but paraphrase using your own words to show you are listening and genuinely trying to understand. To make it safe for them, continue to remain calm and collected.

It’s also important that you don’t push too hard at this stage. If the other person still looks upset but won’t share, you may choose to back off and come back another time. They may not be ready at that moment. If you keep pushing, they may feel threatened instead of safe.

P = Prime
This is the last resort because you are leading the conversation instead of allowing them to tell you their truth.

If, in your judgement, the other person acts as though they would like to open up but don’t feel quite safe enough to do so, it may encourage them to share if they see you put a little effort in. Offer your best guess about what they are thinking or feeling, but present it as a question not as fact to continue to show you are genuinely interested and curious. For example: “What I think you might be feeling is…” Or imagine what it is like for them and empathise:” I could understand if you were feeling…because…”

Top tips

Finally, here are some practical actions you can take to collaborate effectively:

  • Build your self-awareness of how you react in certain situations, particularly those that elicit a strong negative reaction for you (remembering the SCARF model). This will help you think about, prepare for, and minimise perceived threats and difficult interactions
  • Learn to recognise your emotions in the moment, and from there, learn how to manage your emotions. Labelling these emotions can help give you some distance, and so reduce the level of the threat
  • Be genuinely interested in other people’s points of view. As Stephen Covey said: “Seek first to understand then be understood”. You don’t have to agree, but suspending your judgement whilst remaining curious will enable you to hear different viewpoints
  • Be prepared to change your view and/or allow it to be developed through the thinking of others
  • Believe that people who have a different viewpoint to your own are okay, and as competent as you are
  • Allow more time for creative dialogue, especially when relationships are new

When I work with a new team, decision-making initially takes longer as there needs to be more discussion and people are generally more polite. As  teams develop, that process speeds up yet remains collaborative. To avoid the danger of getting stale when you get to this stage, the key is to keep eliciting new input and ideas.

  • Build in social time to help develop relationships
  • Develop a culture and practice of giving feedback, as this helps build self-awareness, trust and openness. Remember, it’s usually best to maintain a ratio of two-thirds positive / appreciative to one-third developmental / constructive feedback
  • Ensure everyone has equal time to talk, and an equal voice
  • Develop your EQ and the EQ of the team you lead, as this will improve your skills in:
    • Being aware of your own emotions
    • Managing your own emotions
    • Recognising the emotions of others
    • Managing the interplay between people

This links to my article about emotional intelligence

  • Learn to embrace (or at least tolerate) ambiguity as this will enable you to keep things open and unclear during the probable messy phase of collaborative discussions

This links to my article about ambiguity

  • When emotions are running high, it can help to have a process that takes the heat out of the situation (as long as you are still eliciting everybody’s view).

This links to my article about models for decision-making

Next month: Why it’s okay to show emotion in the workplace.

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