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Working Towards Better Collaboration

The collaborative process is a phenomenon that remains hugely understudied in business and in life. We romanticise the notion of the isolated artist, the eccentric inventor, the lone pioneer… Yet not nearly as much admiration, recognition and esteem is placed upon collaborative work.

Huge feats have been undertaken, unthinkable things achieved, and advanced civilisations built upon collaborative work. If we are able to let go of the ego, our focus on the self-as-lone-creator, we are better able to develop the skills needed for effective collaboration. Which all companies are built upon, no matter their size.

“You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps”.

Let’s face it. People are nuts. We are all stark raving mad. The spectrum of nuances, quirks and idiosyncrasies displayed by our colleagues (and to our horror, by ourselves), is vast. And probably in a constant state of expansion.

We quickly blame the failures of poor collaboration on the architectural structure of management, the inappropriateness of time, or on the etherial mystery of “technical issues”. When actually, most of the time poor collaboration isn’t because your email system won’t allow for collaborative communication, or the set up of the meeting room doesn’t facilitate interaction, it’s because of psychology.

Don’t worry. It’s ok to admit that we each have our own “problems of character”, that prevent us from working in the most efficient and effective ways possible. The realisation that the quirks of others that prove so irritating to us, are not only limited to them (but actually, we are also very difficult to work with in our own way), is horrifying.

But there’s no need to despair. Read this thoughtfully curated list designed to help you reflect on the ways in which you are better able to work with others, and vastly improve the collaborative process.

Ten Anti-Collaboration Traits.

1. Defensiveness

This is the knee-jerk reaction to reject criticism. This raises the cost of disagreement hugely. For people who are defensive in character, their behaviour and response towards criticism is both large and severe. This is because, inside themselves, they take the attack to be entirely personal and therefore catastrophic. There is in their minds no distinction between a criticism of their work – and a criticism of their very being and right to exist.

It becomes deeply depressing to have any sort of tricky discussion with them about anything. It’s guaranteed to flare up. One wants to point out that something is a little late; but is there really a point when a drama is going to ensue? Organisations can put up with defensive people for a long time, but the relationship tends to get more and more tiresome – and eventually, no one is too sad when a decision is taken to part ways.

2. Irrational Rivalry.

Rivalry can be very beneficial: for example, when you have two sales teams seeking the best quarterly results; two research groups pursuing different strategies to solve a major problem; or many analysts competing to provide the most accurate and most useful overview of an issue.

But there are individuals who bring rivalry into areas that don’t require it – and certainly don’t benefit from it. For example, a busy executive is assigned a smart young assistant to take some of the less complex issues off their desk. But instead of making the best use of this help and streamlining their own efforts, the executive starts to worry that their assistant is doing too well; they think (incorrectly) that if the assistant is a success, their own job will soon disappear. So they start to make life difficult for them. They get reluctant to pass on tasks and they get extremely agitated the day their assistant is praised by the CEO. They would rather some of their work was done badly, or not at all, than that their helper should do it well.

It feels as if there is only space for one of them to thrive and they are in competition for the limited affection of a superior. This is the definition of irrational rivalry: rivalry with no sane productive business end.

3. People-Pleasing

People-pleasing means the genuine fear of passing on information, however important, that might upset others. It is deeply problematic, for it confuses being polite with withholding information. It blurs the line between lying and pleasing.

Nations and businesses that are successful were never built on this fear: they are and never have been sentimental around bad news. The successful ones are those that recognise the necessity for honesty (and tact).  

People pleasing is non-discriminatory in level. It could be the young assistant too terrified to admit a blunder, or the CEO of a big firm too afraid to communicate with the company that the business is in hot water. We must stop treating each other like small children and realise that people are in fact very capable of hearing, and dealing with, bad news. 

4. Negativity

We all know one (maybe we are them). The negative guy, the downer of the group, he knows that things will go wrong, it’s happened before, and will more than likely happen again. These people confuse negativity with wisdom, and point out the dangers and risks with over-confidence believing those around him are fools for not considering these things with the seriousness they require.

Collaborating with these people is hard. They kill ideas in their early stages of development. They have the ability to bring down the morale of the entire group. They believe that the power lies elsewhere, nothing will really change, so all efforts are futile.

5. Over-Control

The control-freak is terrified of letting other people do things. No matter how overburdened or pressed for time they might be, they are very reluctant to let any decisions or tasks leave their desk. Sharing and delegating causes them real anxiety.

Taking control is also a virtue. It displays large levels of responsibility for workloads and tasks, and the principal that putting in a lot of effort can be very personally rewarding. But in patterns of over-control, other people are always seen as obstacles to doing things well. This lack of faith in others is troubling. It places them in the position of the idiot, and undermines their ability to complete the smallest task with any level of skill or professionalism.

6. Non-Listeners

Whether this is through silently nodding in agreement, politely waiting for you to finish (because what you’re actually saying is irrelevant and unimportant anyway), or through over-speaking, the non-listener believes that they already know the key things. Over-speaking is also a way of non-listening. Speaking too much is grounded in the same lack of curiosity about what other people think. To them, listening is the inferior position, speaking is the sign of status. 

It’s hardly surprising with all of the collective concepts of the power of speechmaking. But it is often those who are able to wait patiently, ask questions and take in what you say, who are the better listeners. It’s no coincidence that they are also the ones who are the fastest learners.

How can we work together, better?

It’s extremely easy to blame the underperformance of the team on others (lack of) efforts. To gossip about certain oddities and frustrating characteristics of members of different departments. But how about just letting go of the ego, give yourself a good self-evaluation, and realise where you can improve, in order to become a better person to work with.

Jean Paul Sartre infamously claimed that “hell is other people”, when we come to realise how odd we really are when confronted by others. Because, let’s face it, we only really feel normal when we are alone. Rather than simply becoming embarrassed, we can learn important lessons from this introspection. By focusing on ourselves, we can improve the quality of our communication, and come to understand others better, thus improving our ability to collaborate. A hugely underestimated, yet vitally important skill.

Try asking yourself, “how am I to work with?”, and you might be surprised with your answer.

Want to learn more? Read the extended version of this list from The Book of Life.

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