The ultimate guide to effective collaboration in the workplace

How to work together when personalities, communication styles and skill sets clash

Author: Devon Maloney16th April 2019Illustration by Wenting Li

Whether your colleagues are your best friends or total opposites, achieving a culture of effective collaboration in the workplace rarely comes easily, especially for leaders. Maybe your teammates work remotely and are hard to reach, departments have become siloed, or the plague of unproductive meetings or bickering personalities is upon you.

But everyone should want to learn how to collaborate in the workplace. When teams collaborate effectively, they produce new ideas and innovative solutions that can meet or even surpass business objectives.

We know that developing a concrete strategy for collaboration in the office—and committing to making it work—is no small feat. But following these best practices and ideas for collaboration in the workplace might make it a lot less painful.

“Collaboration isn’t something to dread. Life and work is made better by letting other folks in.”

Rachael MadduxCommunications associate at Mailchimp

Get in the team collaboration mindset

First you might need to rework your team dynamic into one that encourages effective collaboration in the workplace. That could start with something very basic: creating a positive work environment that reframes how your team thinks about the actual concept of collaboration.

“I was totally that kid who always got stuck doing all the work on every group project, which really turned me against it for a long time,” says Rachael Maddux, a communications associate at Mailchimp. “ ‘Let’s work together’ was just code for ‘You do the work, I’ll play Oregon Trail in the computer lab.’ ”

As the Atlanta-based marketing-platform startup approaches the 1,000-employee mark, Maddux’s team has doubled in size, making healthy collaboration imperative to the company’s inner workings. “I’ve run into some people who take that approach to their actual jobs, but for the most part, collaboration isn’t something to dread,” says Maddux. “Life and work is made better by letting other folks in.”

Create an inclusive environment for promoting collaboration in the workplace

When it comes to being collaborative in the workplace, team members need to be able to come together and treat one another fairly, which is why psychological safety is key. “People can’t be afraid, when they speak up and say something, that the reaction from the room is gonna be God, that was a stupid idea or How do you not know that?” says Ariel Hunsberger, the head of learning and development at Slack.

To create that sense of safety, the team will also need to simply be able to empathize with one another. The more you understand your colleagues’ narratives about themselves—how they work, where their expertise lies, the challenges they’re dealing with on a daily basis—the better chance you’ll have at collaborating well with them.

“Nobody should ever feel like My job is the hardest, and everybody else is just out to make my life harder,” says Hunsberger. “If you find yourself feeling that way about the work, it means that it might be time to build more empathy for those people you feel are making your life difficult.”

That said, don’t go overboard. While having work friends has been proven crucial for retaining employees and keeping them happy, doubling down on the social calendar isn’t always the key to increasing collaboration in the office.

“Collaboration isn’t something you can offsite your way into,” says Maddux. “Staff social outings might be meant as a bonding experience, but it can be hard to translate that back to the office.”

Instead, she says, effective collaboration in the workplace is a practice that requires building trust and really committing to systems put in place. “It’s not always easy-breezy,” she adds. “But I know I’m more productive and way happier in an environment where communication is wide open and my teammates are as supportive of each others’ work as they are their own.”

Make meetings more efficient

Yes, on one hand, a schedule full of meetings can grind a team’s productivity to a halt. On the other, they’re all but unavoidable when it comes to promoting collaboration in the workplace. And whether your meetings succeed depends on the way you plan and execute them.

1. It all begins with preparation

“Focused, thoughtfully written agendas are super-important,” says Elizabeth Brochhausen, the senior manager of experiential strategy and live production at Pandora. For her team, time is of the essence: Organizing and hosting up to 100 events a year means they have to collaborate with multiple departments, across Pandora’s six offices across the country, and often on the fly.

It’s not uncommon for Brochhausen to be traveling 150 or more days a year, conducting remote meetings as she goes. She suggests—especially if your team is particularly chatty—starting with five or 10 minutes of venting and gossiping, “so you can just get it out of the way at the top before you dive into the meat and potatoes of the meeting.”

2. Clearly outline the goals of each individual in the meeting

In Slack’s report about what makes for good collaboration in the workplace, surveyed workers around the globe cited “clear responsibilities” as one of the most important elements of effective teamwork—and one of the biggest roadblocks to collaboration when that clarity is absent.

“Everybody comes into a meeting with a different priority; something different that they’re trying to solve for,” says Brochhausen. “So it’s important to identify those things up front. That way, as you’re moving through the discussion, you’re thinking about the ways that other people’s priorities and agendas are playing into your own. Finding that common denominator is going to move everybody forward.”

3. Promote active listening

For your team to truly understand one another’s individual responsibilities, they’ll need to drill down on their active listening: that is, listening to learn and absorb, without the intention of responding.

“A lot of times, when we’re listening to someone, we’re just waiting for our turn to respond, thinking about how we’re going to react the entire time,” Hunsberger says. ”We’re not actually listening. We’re not retaining what is coming from our potential collaboration partners. We’re missing out on emotion, and on figuring out ways our goals might align. It’s amazing how much more you can get out of those kinds of conversations.”

Mailchimp has baked that philosophy into its DNA, too. “Our company motto is ‘Listen hard, change fast,’ which is a really good mantra for working collaboratively,” says Maddux. “It reminds me [to be] deeply engaged but also flexible and open to new information and any other curveballs that might come my way.”

Prioritize process and accountability

“Often people will just assume that everybody knows what the process is, but without documentation of process, things can get really hairy,” says Brochhausen. “When people are able to reference a document that shows the workflow channels, to have the work-back schedule, it gives them a very clear directive.”

Not to mention, it helps promote accountability. “If you miss deadlines, if you’re not doing your part, you’re able to see that these are all the other things and people who are impacted by that,” Brochhausen adds.

That kind of transparency and communication should be carried over into as many relationships as possible, especially when it comes to individual workers’ pain points.

“My new boss just started a few months ago,” says Brochhausen, “and in our first meeting, he said, ‘Listen, I’m really bad on email. I get a ton of it, and I’m terrible at it, so if you send me a really important email, bump it at the end of the day or send me a text message.’ That was helpful for me to determine when I should follow up. I don’t want to be pushy, but I want to make sure this is flagged.”

When things go wrong, don’t panic

It should be the responsibility of the entire team to collaborate constructively. So before pounding the panic button on an issue, go through the following steps to keep collaboration in the workplace productive and courteous.

1. Have one-on-one conversations

Digital communication tools have no doubt revolutionized collaboration in office. But sometimes it takes some real person-to-person conversations to iron out misunderstandings.

“I’ve had so many issues come up where a quick phone call could have solved the entire problem,” says Brochhausen. “There’s a lot of value in picking up a phone, especially in this day and age, where people don’t expect it. You can catch people off guard and have a real open and honest communication, without a whole lot of editing.”

Hunsberger agrees, saying it’s important to consider whether your communication is adding overall clarity to a project. “Everyone struggles with information overload,” she says. “Especially digitally. So make sure to ask yourself, Why are you saying this? Is it helpful?

2. Disagree and commit

Let’s say the team has decided to prioritize one project, but someone on the team believes it should be focusing on something else. Hunsberger teaches “disagree and commit,” an established decision-making strategy (also followed by Amazon employees) that allows workers to have their grievances heard and to feel like they’ve been consulted, while maintaining responsibility for the work at hand.

“My pet project might’ve gotten cut from our list of major priorities, but my role as an employee would be to say, ‘OK, I disagree with that decision, but I commit to getting these current priorities done, because I know that my voice was heard,’ ” Hunsberger says. “Maybe we’ll get to my thing or maybe we won’t, but we have to be OK with that, because there will always be things that we don’t get to. We can’t do absolutely everything.”

3. Focus on alignment and your “collaborative partner brand”

“Are you actually hearing each other, or are you talking past each other?” says Hunsberger. “Are you learning from your teammates about where they’re coming from or just talking to get to your own goal?”

She also encourages coworkers to consider their “brand as a collaborative partner.” Although that term sounds buzzwordy, it really just means your professional reputation—whether people want to work with you. Everything you contribute is adding to or subtracting from your own value as a good colleague.

Check your (collaborative) self before you wreck yourself

Before diving into ideas for collaboration in the workplace, consider how you can implement the strategies listed above. Even if your team members are the best of friends, conflict will come up. But anticipating it and staying flexible along the way are the keys to getting through it and coming out on top.

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