Collaboration Matters — Part One: How to Foster a Positive Collaboration Environment

At Valencia College, we talk about our culture and discipline of collaboration, particularly when designing work and solutions to challenges. We believe in a collaborative approach to governance, to cultural change and to systemic decisions; however, we do not always share why collaboration is so essential or even how to collaborate. Over the next few months, we will share some ways to foster a positive collaboration environment, what we mean by “collaboration by design” and how to deliberately design opportunities for collaboration.

By Katie Tagye, Director, Organizational Design and Development

What do we mean by collaboration? Generally, when we talk about the College’s value of collaboration, we’re referring to the way that we work together to define a challenge, establish principles and generate and develop solutions. Collaboration is co-creation, meaning that the unique combination of people working in collaboration will create a unique product together.

All of the work happens together through dialogue, inquiry and exploration. Collaboration is different from seeking buy-in or building consensus. Buy-in happens when one person or group pitches an idea or solution to others, attempting to demonstrate that their approach, ideas and conclusions are sound. Consensus refers to a unanimous agreement. Neither are necessary or helpful in collaboration.

Collaboration, therefore, can move slower and can be expensive.

If we do it well, we take the time to uncover many possibilities before moving forward and making decisions. And it takes many people from different positions in the organization to work and think together (that’s the expensive part). However, the investment is worth it when the perspectives are heard, solutions are innovative and the implementation is smooth.

Luckily, collaboration doesn’t have to take place in every part of work in order to be effective. In fact, when a group over-collaborates, work can move unnecessarily slow, decisions may be delayed or avoided, and people begin to distrust the process. Collaboration is best served at the points in the work when differing expertise, perspectives and input is needed for larger systemic work. Independent work is best utilized when the individual has full authority, influence and ability to complete the work and move the work forward.

So why doesn’t collaboration automatically work when a group of people is in the same room? There are many factors, but research tells us that the factors that can most predict how well a team will collaborate are psychological safety, or the feeling like you are safe in a group to take risks, and cognitive diversity, or diversity of thought.

Things to Try

So you want to improve your work team’s ability to collaborate? Great! Start by thinking about the conditions needed for psychological safety and cognitive diversity. Here are a few things to consider when making the culture and discipline of collaboration a focus of your work.

  • Highlight Curiosity and Inquiry — The habit of inquiry is so powerful because it takes us from a place of defending our position to exploring the many other reasonable positions that exist. However, in order to truly be curious and inquisitive, you must make sure you are asking authentic questions — ones in which you truly are unsure of and curious about the answers (Not ideas or suggestions masked as questions.). Look for ways to experiment for the purpose of learning rather than the purpose of proving a perspective to be true.
  • Stay Open and Model Risk-taking — In order to develop the “confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,” leaders must be willing to take reasonable risks and seek feedback on their thoughts. It isn’t enough to suggest that a group be safe for risk taking, it must be demonstrated.
  • Consider Whom is Invited — In research presented in the Harvard Business Review article Collaborative Overload, only 3 – 5% of employees are contributing 20 – 35% of cross-organizational collaborations. Whom are you inviting when you have the opportunity to invite people into collaborative work? Where do you have opportunities to invite new voices to contribute to the work?
  • Deliberately Highlight the Benefits of Cognitive Diversity — Be explicit about the advantage of differences in innovation and growth, and look for ways to ask for differing perspectives rather than hoping they will surface on their own. Taking turns being a deliberate “devil’s advocate” can distribute the burden of contradictory ideas.
  • Take Time for Relationships — Relationship development can help to build the interpersonal trust and genuine care needed for psychological safety. This is especially true for teams who work on multiple collaborative projects and lasting teams. Relationships also help us learn about the competencies of our colleagues which help to build the cognitive trust and mutual respect needed in collaboration.
  • Consider Technology — How might technological tools such as Skype, Microsoft Teams or OneNote help collegewide teams equitably contribute to discussions? And how might you determine what portions of the work need to take place face-to-face and what portions of the work can be put online to maximize the benefits of collaborative teamwork without maximizing the downsides.

For more ideas, consider reading the article “How to Develop Psychological Safety,” which inspired some of these suggestions and provides more recommendations for developing psychological safety in teams.

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