by Achim Nowak

Wait a Minute – I’m Supposed to Collaborate With YOU?

March 20, 2022


 I frequently am a pretty bad collaborator. Sometimes, a downright horrible one.

I was reminded of this during a chat with my colleague Vera, VP of HR for a global manufacturing enterprise.

I love to collaborate with you if I respect you and your skills, I confess to Vera. If I don’t, all my worst instincts come to the fore.

I know, Vera says with a sigh. Collaborating with a bunch of A-team players can be exhilarating. Most of the time collaboration feels like a complex and never-ending slog to an outcome you don’t love, and you wish you had just done it by yourself.

Another sigh. It felt good to own it.

Collaboration is one of our workplace sacred cows. We’re all expected to embrace it as a rollicking good practice. The challenge, says Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School, is this: Leaders who want to create collaborative workplace cultures try hard to instill collaboration as a value. What they forget is that collaboration requires good old-fashioned skills. More importantly, subtle and highly nuanced skills. The sort of skills that we hone through a commitment to life-long learning.

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” 

African proverb

I think of a compelling article by Gino in a pre-pandemic issue of The Harvard Business Review: “Cracking the Code of Sustained Collaboration” (HBR, November/December 2019). Gino highlights the work of companies such as Pixar, Webasto and American Express who actively invest in collaboration-skills training.

When I look at the list of 6 skill sets that Gino identifies, my first thought is yeah, I know these. Upon reflection, I remember how “not easy” they are – and how quickly they can fly out the window when we collaborate with someone who we do not deem a great collaboration partner.

Here are Gino’s top 6 collaboration skills:

1. Teach people to listen, not talk.

But of course, you may say to yourself, I have taken an active listening class. Well, here are some very specific ways of practicing a higher-level of listening, especially when the conversation may not be flowing with ease:

  • Whenever possible, ask an expansive question to better understand another’s point-of-view instead of responding right away. 
  • Focus on the listener instead of focusing on yourself and getting busy crafting a response to what the speaker is saying. When focusing inward, conduct quick “self-checks” to stay present with what you’re thinking and feeling. 
  • Allow for silence instead of resorting to a fast response. Silence helps both you and the speaker to better absorb what has just been said, and silence invariably invites a richer and more thoughtful response.

2. Train people to practice empathy.

When I was trained as a mediator at the Brooklyn Courts, one of the most potent techniques I learned was the “Shoe Swap.” Instead of rebutting what a speaker says, I intentionally pause, put myself in the other person’s shoe, for just a moment, to sincerely seek to understand why s/he thinks or feels the way s/he does. Hard to do. And powerful stuff. It invariably changes any conversation.

3. Make people more comfortable with feedback.

Because so many of us have received vague, platitudinous or at times personally hurtful feedback, it is easy to shy away from giving honest and actionable feedback to others. Or we may, intentionally or not, signal that we don’t wish to receive feedback ourselves and just want to get on with things.

How do we begin to move into a more effective feedback environment that prevents collaborative endeavors from getting stuck? Have the courage to openly talk about aversions to feedback, choose to practice frequent feedback that is direct, specific, and actionable – and give each other feedback about the quality of feedback that is or isn’t happening. Stay feedback-conscious!

4. Teach people to lead AND follow.

I have taught these skills for years. Some folks call it switching from Advocacy to Inquiry. I like energy language and think of it as knowing when to Push and when to Pull. Great collaborators are comfortable with both pushing and pulling. They have a keen sense of when to use one approach over the other. And they do so with clear purpose. Makes sense, right? The key success factor: Be comfortable with both communication styles AND use them with strategic intent.

5. Speak with clarity and avoid abstractions.

Know when brainstorming is over. Know when abstraction, more big ideas and additional data will not move you closer to action or making progress. Know when it is time to get specific. Know when it is time to condense what you need to say into 3 or 4 sentences. Know when it is time to call for action. And have the courage to do it. You will elevate the collaborative discourse for everyone involved.

6. Train people to have win-win interactions.

Sounds good, right? You may even have studied the terrific Harvard Negotiation model that teaches tools for getting to win-win. In reality, this is never easy. If I had to boil a win-win mindset down to 2 simple tactics, it would be these:

  • Talk transparently about what winning looks like for the various members of a collaborative team. You may be surprised – there may be wildly different thoughts on how define a win. This conversation alone will move you closer to a win-win outcome and minimize potential frustration. 
  • Discuss what folks need so they can be happy with a win. The moment essential needs are addressed, it is often much easier to embrace a win that at first doesn’t not seem palatable. A seismic shift.

Chances are, you and your colleagues have already studied some of these skills. Chances are you, like me, think these skills are a fine idea. Good. Continue to train these skills. Continue to hone these skills. Stay mindful of them in every professional collaboration.

Each of these skills works powerfully in any social situation, as well. If you are at all social, you will be in the midst of non-stop practice opportunities.

Collaboration truly is a life-long learning skill. So keep practicing. Keep learning. And why not do it with joy?

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