collaboration at work
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Collaboration at work: a ticket to becoming indispensable

The dramatic surge in collaboration at work

If you’re like most of our clients, you’ll have noticed a steadily growing feature of your job: the need to work with others to tackle problems, make decisions and coordinate effort towards results. This collaboration requirement has become a feature of every workplace.

Data we’ve collected indicates that many of us spend up to 80% of our time working with others in one way or another. This is confirmed by research published by Rob Cross and his team at Babson College in the US. They found that the managers they surveyed now spend as much as 85% of their time in meetings, large, small and, increasingly, virtual.  Indeed, in today’s hybrid workplace, there can be an unquestioned assumption that being accessible anywhere and anytime is an asset.

A compelling rationale for these collaborative demands

Many variables have coalesced to produce today’s collaboration imperative. Perhaps the most fundamental is the simple fact that much of what professionals now do is more complex than years ago and the context is more volatile than years ago as well. 20 years ago a talented individual working alone could reasonably be expected to deliver high quality outcomes consistently over time. But it’s no longer enough to be a clever, articulate and confident individual.

The problems facing most organisations in the course of a typical working week are too multifaceted, the interdependencies too intricate and the implications of a poor decision too serious, to leave things to a single person working alone. Today, you have to be able to think with your colleagues. The challenge is that thinking alone is hard enough but thinking together is very demanding indeed! In addition, UGM data about how leadership potential is identified shows that your capacity to work well with others helps you to be seen as influential and a possible leader.

In this context, it’s unsurprising that the World Economic Forum in its recent report ‘The Future of Jobs’ identified ‘working with people’ as one of the skill sets that will be in increasing demand as we prepare ourselves for the workplaces of 2025.

Complexity is a key driver of this collaboration revolution.

When we take into account matrix structures, globalisation, fierce competition in all sectors, the demands of social media, the growth of virtual collaboration tools, the pace of change, on-call demands and the shift from hierarchies to networks – then the relentless surge of collaboration becomes understandable. The just published PwC survey, ‘Hopes and Fears 2021’ asked 32,500 people from 19 countries what they thought about their current and future workplaces. 32% thought their current job would be obsolete within five years. The survey conclusion was that employees across every sector would need to acquire new skills to help them think and work in different ways. A critical one of these is undoubtedly collaboration.

What’s involved in collaboration?

The skills involved in working well with other people aren’t straightforward. When you’re working with others on a complex project, authority may not be clearly defined. You might be working across silos and functions. You could be collaborating with end users or customers outside your own organisation. The relationships are often up, down, sideways and diagonal! You generally have to build alignment, solve problems, make decisions and determine actions through influence, trust and relationships, rather than through the old ‘command and control’ methods. You’re forced to rely on people that you can’t hold accountable in quite the same direct ways.

The skills involved include rapport and trust, developing a shared sense of purpose, having a repertoire of thinking tools (which are both visual and virtual), quite advanced negotiation skills, as well such as some expertise in the art and science of ‘disagreeing without being disagreeable’!

The shadow side of collaboration – overload

It’s easy to see how all these extra relationships can lead to a lot of extra work! It can feel like there’s always someone who wants something from you! Collaboration overload can be the result.

The personal or psychological challenges of tackling this aren’t easy. You may want to be seen as a ‘good team player’ or even a ‘star performer’. You may, as a manager, feel some doubt about the capabilities, focus or effort of your team members and overwork yourself as a way of compensating for what you see as their deficiencies. You may not have had much training in how to work and manage in today’s collaborative, virtual, networked world. If this is the case, you’re not alone!

Another stress is a type of fear of missing out related to concerns about visibility in the hybrid workplace. You said ‘yes’ to a collaboration request when you should have said ‘no’ because you want to do all you can to ensure that those in senior positions notice you and your talents. Clarifying your own strategic objectives and strengths, then mapping these against your organisation’s priorities will help you to refuse ‘off strategy’ collaboration requests. For managers and team leaders, building trust and alignment will help you upskill team members to need you less, thus lowering your own workload.

We find ourselves at a transition point in how work gets done, similar to the seismic social shift of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. Social transitions are never smooth and there are often casualties along the way.

Building collaborative communities

In response to all of the above, recent research has identified that a new type of organisation is emerging. In these knowledge focused enterprises, the aim is to be innovative and efficient, agile and scalable. Such organisations are collaborative communities.

Adler and his team at the University of Southern California have mapped the shift from the traditional industrial age organisation to the collaborative community model. The former had the appeal of clarity, security, consistency and a predictable bureaucracy. But it is also inflexible, slow to innovate and it doesn’t cope well with volatility. Yet the shadow side of this model isn’t effective either. Adler calls this the free agent model. It is flexible. Individual effort is rewarded. But its weak organisational ties mean that the collaboration and teamwork vital for today’s knowledge-based enterprise are missing, thus undermining success.

Instead, they argue for the collaborative community model. Here there is a strong sense of shared purpose and coordination of effort across diverse and interdependent teams in a network. And in these collaborative communities of the future the most highly valued professionals, the ones viewed as indispensable, will be those who can work well with others to tackle the complex challenges we face.


10 leadership behaviours that nurture collaboration at work

  1. I’m committed to a larger sense of purpose than my own self-interest.
  2. I generally acknowledge areas where I’m not an expert and actively draw in those who are so that we can collaborate.
  3. I look out for key points in a project that would benefit from rich interactions and collaboration.
  4. I make sure we establish ‘why’ before we move to the ‘what’ or the ‘how’.
  5. I encourage colleagues to synchronise their own workload with the demands of others in our network so we can minimise overload.
  6. I actively encourage us all to live our purpose by regularly sharing the rationale for our collaboration.
  7. In our meetings, I’m fully engaged and consistently show my interest in others and their ideas through, for example, checking for understanding.
  8. I look for ways I can show others in my network how their efforts contribute to our evolving plan, so they feel acknowledged and recognised.
  9. When I disagree, I make sure to do so in ways that focus our attention on how we can jointly improve the issue at hand. It’s never about the individual.
  10. I work on balancing pushing towards outcomes and welcoming emergent, new ideas that will improve both our project and our process for achieving it.

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