Creating a Radically Collaborative Environment: A CEO can’t do everything!  What they can do, however, is create an environment where people collaborate effectively to ensure that everything does get done.  Creating and maintaining a collaborative environment is one of the hardest jobs a leader will be asked to do, and one of the most essential.  leaders can’t simply order Thou Shall Be Collaborative, and expect people to change.  They have to be good at it themselves, practicing what they preach before then demand it from others.  They also have to make sure that a critical mass of other key employees is also highly skilled at collaboration.  It needs to be a high priority in both hiring and training decisions.

A project funded by the State of California and the Hewlett Foundation can give leaders a roadmap for what it takes to make a collaborative environment. The project was designed to turn highly conflicted, adversarial workplaces into more cooperative and supportive ones. The project was initiated because organizations that were ineffective at collaboration were costing the State a huge amount of money, primarily in lost productivity.

Based upon a great deal amount of research, California’s Public Employment Relations Board sponsored an effort to teach collaboration skills in these adversarial environments.  The project was wildly successful.  Measurable conflict, like the number of unfair labor practice charges filed, or requests for mediators, was reduced by 67% in almost 100 organizations.  Trust increased and relationships became significantly more productive.  Three international follow up studies documented a 33.1% increase in the ability to get their interests met in conflict by participants trained in five key collaborative skills.

So what does it take to build a radically collaborative environment? Based up upon all the original research from this project and 30 years of battle-testing in difficult circumstances, we found there are five skills that are essential for creating a collaborative environment.  They are a combination of skill sets

and mind sets, both attitudes and competencies that can be learned in a reasonably short period of time, and can have an immediate positive impact within an organization.  They are:

  • Collaborative Intention: Making a conscious personal commitment to seeking mutual gains in your relationships.
    Leaders need to pay attention to their attitude.  People with a collaborative attitude consciously seek solutions rather than blame.  They think both short term and long term.  They are interested in other points of view and welcome feedback.  The key is remaining conscious of building mutual success.
    Simply paying attention to your mindset will make a big difference.  At the Stockholm School of Economics, groups in the International Management Program where I teach must collaborate on a class project.  One year the group focused on monitoring their attitudes over a period of time.  At certain times each day, wherever they were, they noted if they had a collaborative attitude or a more adversarial or a passive, conflict avoidant attitude.  In analyzing the results it was clear that early in the project, more often than not, most of them lacked a collaborative attitude.  By the end of the project, simply by paying attention, more often than not, most of them were operating with a much more effective collaborative attitude.
  • Openness: Being able to create an atmosphere where it feels safe enough for people to deal with difficult issues directly.
    The level of trust in any organization is determined to a great extent by how safe people feel to deal with difficult issues directly.  W Edwards Deming always maintained that quality is impossible when people are afraid to tell the truth.
    The global giant Google was aware that as the world becomes increasing global, complex and interdependent, the bulk of modern work becomes increasingly project related and team-based.  In order to figure out how to create the best teams possible they intensely studied 180 Google teams, both high and low performing, from all over the company.  They studied team demographics, personality traits, team dynamics, hobbies, how much members socialized outside of work, gender/age balances, etc.  If you could think of it and it could be measured, Google measured it.  Yet for most of the factors they looked at they realized they could do just as good a job picking a team by throwing darts at a dartboard.
    After two years of intense study and analysis, they concluded that one factor was far and above the most important for the team to be successful, “psychological safety.”  In other words, it describes a team that is operating with a collaborative culture, where they feel safe enough to raise difficult issues and deal with them directly.
  • Self-Accountability: Taking responsibility for the full range of choices made either through action or inaction, and taking responsibility for both the intended and unforeseen consequences of those choices.
    The way people make little decisions is often a reflection of how they make bigger decisions in their lives. Many people forfeit choices not realizing that not to choose is also a choice.  People’s beliefs about the amount of choice they have in their lives can either mobilize them or paralyze them.  One of the most effective things leaders can do to help employees feel more empowered is to help them change their belief system about how much choice they have in their life and get them to start paying closer attention to the choices they actually are making.  Self-accountability is being aware of all the choices we make through action or non-action, and taking responsibility for all the results of those choices, both intended and unintended.
  • Self-Awareness: Staying non-defensive
    In 25 years as a judge helping other people resolve their conflicts, I’ve found that nothing helps them more than being able to stay non-defensive.  When we get defensive our thinking becomes rigid and we simply become stupid.  Not only are we bad problem solvers but we invite everyone else in the room to get defensive.  Your best defense against getting defensive is self-awareness.  Knowing what triggers you and being on the lookout for your blind spots will help you reduce the damage that defensiveness causes.
  • Negotiating and Problem Solving:  Skillfully negotiating your way through the conflict that is inevitable in any long-term working relationship.
    Even the most collaborative, self-aware, accountable, non-defensive, truth-telling people will have a difficult time maintaining successful relationships if they aren’t skilled at negotiating conflict in a way that supports relationships rather than undermines them. Focusing on understanding the underlying interests of all the parties to any dispute before you start looking for solutions will help you find solutions that work for everyone.

Setting a tone where employees are focused on mutual gains, where they feel safe enough to raise difficult issues and deal with them directly, where they are accountable for the choices they make and self-aware enough to stay non-defensive, and negotiate in a way to meet as many of everyone’s interests as possible will allow collaboration to thrive, and do a better job of meeting the goals of any organization.


Written by James Tamm.


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