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Collaboration – It’s a Learned Skill

One of the topics most managers, old and young, new and seasoned, seem to grapple with during their careers in management is figuring out how to get their teams to collaborate more.

Today companies need to engage collaboration as a key skill set important to their hiring and retention plans. Regardless of organizational structure of your company, from vertical to flat, managers need to know how to get teams to collaborate more. And in the future an increasing need, maybe even urgency for this skill will appear.

Every level of leadership and management need to know more how to practice collaborative skills and build them into the fabric of the culture and workplace processes between people.

Most companies need to promote promising subject matter experts in the hope they will keep up with the transition to management. And it is predicted that managers of the future will be working more and more on collaborative teams. They will be required to lead and facilitate collaborative interactions that move the team onward, forward, and through difficulties.

This leadership ability in particular will be of critical importance within the next 10 years – and is a highly prized skill.

It’s a Learned Skill

Collaboration is a most often learned skill; it is not hardwired, though some individuals have a higher awareness of collaborative behaviors earlier in age, usually by having had role models in their family environment or educational setting.

But leaders will not have years and years to learn the skill; they need it already today nearly every day.

Today, we do not have the luxury of that gradual leadership development gained within the security of stable roles with predictable job responsibilities. Job requirements and responsibilities continue to change at rapid speeds, requiring new skills from workers who will be more equipped if they are highly collaborative minded and behaviorally skilled.

It Takes Time and Intention

It can take many years in a career to learn how to be collaborative and actually do it: See what it looks like, sounds like, acts like and feels like to broaden your and your teams’ comfort zone for it. This leadership skill is the champion of team victory (not just a win for a few) and common purposeful decision making. But it comes at a price and a lot of effort.

So, unless you have 30 years to gradually learn through some harsh learning situations (and even then, you might find out you just don’t have the ilk for it) then you need to acquire basic skills and apply them to your current work and life situations. Then, you can’t practice enough.

Four Reasons Collaboration Is Difficult

Collaboration is not inherently natural to the human animal. Collaborative skills are not hard-wired instincts to as human beings who follow and react with self preservation tactics as the first law of nature.Collaboration breakdowns can be confounding. They can significantly shut off the five thinking skills critical to the self awareness needed for collaboration.Collaboration requires skill. And these skills need to be used frequently, not just every time you can’t avoid them. It needs a method and approach with a lot of intentional practice in order to cultivate in a person, relationship or team.Leaders can be extra resistant to collaboration and be unaware of it.

Resistance from Leaders

We see many managers who’ve had plenty of time to learn collaborative skills; they may even have participated in developmental training, then afterward don’t apply the skills frequently enough to master it. They may remember their core ability to remain present, however not skilled enough to handle dialogues to remove obstacles to performance. Since they don’t want to feel vulnerable (a byproduct of collaborative communication); managers often avoid doing the hard work of practicing the collaborative mindset and communication skills. But, they may believe and say they are collaborating, but aren’t.

Many leaders in the workforce have had opportunities to learn collaboration skills, or been in an environment to learn it, or been immersed in a leadership method to help them understand it.   An earlier post this summer explored how managers may be held back by not knowing how, unable to do it, or even unwilling to take certain mindsets and actions that allow for change on a team. And that is certainly most true on the topic of collaboration. Much depends on how much you want to be collaborative.

Some people are even collabo-haters. They just hate having anyone else’s idea shine over their own, or their authority and expertise questioned. They might like be comfortable being open and transparent to others, even those close to them. They may not be able to sense when they are pushing their own personal ‘win’ rather than extending a curious and understanding effort toward their other colleagues who may also be an expert in their own right.

And this is the main obstacle to collaboration: The management of the appearance of defensive reactions that fuel conflict.

Do You Really Need To Collaborate?

Will the best results be obtained through collaboration? Is collaboration really necessary or is it simply wishful thinking or lack of understanding the term?

There are many and maybe most projects that do not need collaboration, they can do well with cooperation and coordinating. Some problems do not require the complexity of forces at play in collaboration. Only those necessary situations and projects should bear the costs of collaboration.

Teams and the individuals on the team will collaborate when they have to because they truly believe the better results will be derived from working fully together, not separately.

The problem with collaboration is that it requires a high level of interpersonal communication skill and self managing efforts that inspire others to get through their filters, blind spots, and limiting factors. And a lot of defensiveness can happen on a team during collaboration.

Help from a leader and coach who has skills to process, follow, and set intention in the group, and follow rules of group process is a must. There is a lot of high touch human connection, but that is what it takes to not only keep being collaborative, but also for being creative.

It is also important to make sure your projects only use collaboration work style when really needed. First try to reduce the amount of projects and teams that require collaboration.

Four responses that subvert collaboration when teams get defensive:

Compete to winComply to avoid conflictCompromise need to push through the tradeoffsCooperate to settle for mediocre results

So, how to you get your teams to collaborate?

First, the team must be led by a leader who is collaborative and able to role model the language, mindset and tools of collaboration.

Go take a long good look in the mirror and ask yourself….”Do I really collaborate?” Do I really? Did I get to my position in this company due to my ability to collaborate?

In other words, if you want to be able to get your teams to collaborate, you have to have some understanding of the skill yourself. And the skill is not that easy or fun to learn, but it’s necessary.

The Growing Need

Collaboration needs on teams is a problem that has grown in tandem with the takeover of the digital age permeating nearly every type of teamwork known to humankind.

We are not going to escape nor work around it anymore. If you don’t know how to collaborate yourself, or do not know how to get your teams to collaborate, you will find life at work on your teams frustrating, confusing, and downright demotivating.

If you couldn’t collaborate before this technology became such an interface, then you may likely be less able or willing today to learn the deeper roots to mindsets that are naturally poised to be collaborative.

And if you are in the millennial and younger generations you will be constantly persuaded to collaborate but really you are cooperating, because your influence is not given a balanced chance.

It does not matter your age or age group. The skill of collaboration and the mindset to maintain it under pressure is going to be important to you and your teams.

An organizational psychologist having spent thousands of hours discussing collaborative breakdowns and deciphered some peculiar characteristics that occur simultaneous to unproductive and detracting energy and mental resources. The good news is that collaboration is a skill that is learned and we exist to help you learn it!

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