How to Help Your Team Collaborate

Written by Dave Bailey

Filed under coaching culture psychology

Wright Brothers

Don't solve for the right answer –solve for team psychology.

As a leader, solving problems on your own doesn't scale.

Eventually, you need to bring the right people together and create the right conditions for collaboration.

If the environment isn't set up for collaboration, your leaders may tend to work against each other. They may hold onto information, keep their heads down, and focus solely on their own lanes.

So how do you set up an environment for collaboration?

1. Outline an inspiring problem

As a leader, your role is to set the scene with some inspiring words on the mission and vision of the company and the purpose of the collaboration.

However, show some vulnerability — after all, you need their help to get to the promised land.

I call the combination of Vision and Vulnerability ‘The Leadership Formula’:

  • Vision: ‘Here’s why we’re doing this, and here’s the inspiring future that we can create.’ Vision clarifies the direction — and minds love clear direction.
  • Vulnerability: ‘I don’t have all the answers, and so I need your help.’ Vulnerability fosters connection — and hearts love connection.

2. Establish Ground Rules

Agreeing on ground rules on how to behave, known as ‘contracting’, can help you avoid unproductive habits such as interrupting, waffling, or losing focus (often with a mobile phone in hand).

Here are three questions that will help the group members design their own ground rules:

  1. What behaviours must we commit to so we can collaborate more effectively?
  2. Do we give each other permission to reinforce these commitments?
  3. How should we enforce them?

Injecting some creativity into setting and reinforcing ground rules can be helpful.

For example, one of my clients uses the term ‘devil’s avocado’ to inject a little humour and make people more relaxed about challenging the consensus.

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3. Prime the Right Behaviours

Presenting certain words and phrases — known as ‘behavioural priming’ — can nudge the team into a more strategic mindset.

Here are six concepts that can help your leaders when they get into these discussions:

  • Embrace the Paradox Mindset: Many strategic decisions are nuanced. When faced with what appears to be an impossible ‘either/or’ decision, reframe it as ‘both/and’ to draw out nuances.
  • Choose clarity over certainty: Waiting for certainty can lead to paralysis. If the data would take too long to collect, be ready to make bold decisions.
  • Work on the business, not in it: It’s easy to get hung up on details, especially when they involve you. Try to focus on The Big Picture.
  • Silence means that you disagree: We often interpret silence as passive agreement, when it often means the opposite. Investigate silences to surface opinions that would otherwise remain unheard.
  • ‘Perfect’ is the enemy of ‘Done’: Collaboration is an iterative process. Remind people to strive for ‘good enough’, not perfection.
  • Ego is the enemy: The right answer might not be your answer. Learn to let go of your ideas and open your mind to others.

4. Forge an Emotional Connection

Fostering connection in the group, particularly when it’s forming, helps you increase the sense of trust and psychological safety needed for healthy conflict and debate.

An informal lunch away from the office can help leaders get to know each other, but building connections is so important that I’d recommend dedicating some ‘work hours’ to it, too.

Activities that increase a sense of connection typically involve safe ways for the group to be vulnerable, share feelings and needs — and be heard.

You can find lots of team-building ideas out there, but here are a few of my favourites:

a) One-question ice-breakers: Try questions that allow people to share something about themselves, such as: ‘What’s a significant event that helped you grow as a person?’

b) Emotions check-ins: Ask people to share how they feel about different aspects of their work life, such as ‘What are you excited about? What are you nervous about?’

c) Team re-introductions: Ask people to choose two or three of the following dimensions and use them to introduce themselves through those dimensions:

  • Age
  • Class or income
  • Abilities
  • Education
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Geography
  • Language
  • National Origin
  • Parenting
  • Politics
  • Race
  • Status
  • Religious Beliefs
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Skin Tone

Having done this before, I can confirm that it’s an incredibly powerful exercise. Not only did I learn about my peers — it even changed the way I think of myself.

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Let the Teamwork Begin

These steps are so simple they may seem trivial. However, I’ve found when collaboration is low, one of these steps has been missing.

Indeed, when teams and work changes, if often requires you to run through these steps again. For example, when a new leader joins, or at the start of a new cycle.

The same applies to your board. Here’s a little-known fact about most boards — the board members don’t know each other well, so they don’t leverage each others strengths and avoid each others’ pet peeves.

Imagine what would happen if your teams had a common problem to work on, shared rules and behaviours, and a deep sense of connection?

It’s when people feel united that real teamwork can begin. 

 Related reading

Originally published April 3, 2024

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