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It’s All About Relationships and Collaboration

Can you remember the last time that you achieved a work goal where you didn’t have contact with another human being? Some project that didn’t require talking or collaborating or reaching out or checking in or supervising or meeting with other people? Even activities that may seem singular (writing code or preparing spreadsheets) still need to be discussed with others. The one thing all our technology has not replaced (yet!) is building productive relationships to accomplish our objectives.

The trend to focus more on collaboration and relationships is intensifying. Technology is a tool. The core of our work is still about the productive interaction between people.

I’ve been in the business of helping people work well together for a very long time. Team work has been in vogue for decades. So has self awareness (AKA, Emotional Intelligence). We’ve had two generations of workers trained in communication skills, conflict resolution, getting to yes, Myers-Briggs styles, team building and decision making methods. My observation is that some of that training is actually working but not as much as it needs to.

These dynamics exist in many companies that make it difficult to use effective interpersonal skills.

  • Internal rewards and incentives still skew to individual performance. In spite of some effort to reward team objectives the vast majority of metrics hinge on meeting one’s own goals. Bonuses tend to be individual vs. team pay outs. Ratings and promotions are individual. When we structure work this way, no amount of extolling team work will get you that collaborative behavior.
  • More talking and less listening is a hallmark of most organizations. It’s impossible to achieve true collaboration without a good balance between the two. The unspoken norm in most cultures is “s/he who speaks first/loudest/most often is the key influencer”. Focusing on persuading others to a singular point of view is autocratic rather than relational or inclusive.
  • Healthy debate is a rare occurrence in most companies. This requires safety to express opposing or minority opinions, tolerance for disagreement, no premature shutting down of discussion, comfort with tension and ambivalence. These traits are in short supply in most employees and leaders and the cultural norms minimize this degree of discomfort.
  • The best collaborations occur within small teams that come together for a specific assignment and period of time. Members are having fun, respect each other, disagree, don’t have alpha dogs and are riveted on achieving the end goals. They share and follow through on commitments and use the team’s experts. People walk away describing this as the best team experience ever. Sadly, it is not replicated often making it the exception rather than the norm.
  • Interpersonal discussions happen in private and are frequently used to offer “constructive feedback”. All those skill building sessions get used behind closed doors rather than in group settings. People will have conflict, difficult conversations, bonding moments and resolutions out of the public eye. What this does is create an environment where one- on-ones mean bad news while the obvious dysfunctional group behavior goes unchecked. There is no habit of calling out unproductive behaviors when it happens. Someone who is constantly interrupting is rarely told in a meeting to sit back and let someone else speak. But privately that person’s boss will have that talk and apply negative consequences if the behavior doesn’t change. This is a missed opportunity to encourage productive collaboration skills in the team setting.
  • Emotional facades substitute for honest interactions. In some companies you can feel the “we all get along here” mood. In others you experience the open hostility. I’ve seen team work posters all over the walls of organizations that clearly signal “every man/woman for themselves”. I can tell you for sure that there is no such thing as everyone getting along or only extreme aggression or competition in any organization. Again, in small private groups there are much more dynamic discussions taking place and great work is getting done. But that generalized tone, usually set by the CEO and executive team, is the expectation. It becomes an overdrawn caricature that is too uni-dimensional for anyone. That said, everyone publicly marches to the drumbeat.

There are no easy fixes for this phenomenon. There is no magic training course. This is about each person screwing up the courage to speak up and connect in meaningful ways. This requires self awareness, decent interpersonal skills, comfort with differences of all kinds, solid core beliefs about human beings and a sense of the greater good.

You’ve seen these people in your own organization. They are trusted go-to people who provide insights, thoughtful listening and objective guidance. You can become one of those people. Try doing some of these things.

  • Listen, really listen. Give higher priority to hearing what others are saying instead of formulating what you will say that will wow the audience. Ask follow up questions so that you get a clear sense of what the person is saying. Ask other people in the group to chime in so you understand the range of perspectives. Mull over what you are hearing. Listen for divergence and consensus. Press others to hear different points of view.
  • Facilitate productive debates. Resist the urge to prematurely shut down lively discussion or to let it go on endlessly. Make sure all the relevant data is part of the discussion so that conclusions aren’t drawn missing something critical. Emotional pleas are fine up to a point but the balance needs to be weighted on the side of facts and the big picture. Beware of key influencers who are pushing their own agendas. Minimize their impact on the group by pulling others into the core debate. Make it safe for people to disagree by acknowledging all points of view. Stay neutral as long as you possibly can.
  • Use private conversations as dress rehearsals. When people approach you for that confidential one-on-one to discuss a problem with a person, team or boss use all your best skills to listen and problem solve. Then focus the conversation on the actions the person will take after this talk. Encourage people to speak in public or private about tough issues by role playing in advance. Follow up at a later date to see how things went. In other words, coach folks to build good relationships.
  • Be the one. With candor and respect, be the person in the room who points out the obvious dysfunction. “We’ve been going in circles for the last 15 minutes. It’s apparent we aren’t getting anywhere. My sense is that we are avoiding the real issue which is…” This takes courage, self confidence and a strong desire to move matters forward in productive ways. There may be blow back, you may make people uncomfortable, you may get chastised but as long as you speak these truths for no personal gain you will be on solid ground.
  • Make meaningful connections. If there are people you work with constantly but don’t like how you relate, go out for a casual lunch and get to know each other a bit. If you admire someone but don’t get enough time with them, seek out their guidance on a knotty issue. If you are intimidated by someone, find a way to interact with them in a more relaxed situation. Find out what the biggest stressors are for the folks you are closest with. Find out how you can alleviate some of that pressure. Acknowledge people’s accomplishments by asking them how they did it; go beyond a high five. Keep your door open for others to connect with you.

We all know that the best results are achieved through great collaborations. No matter how toxic or unproductive your organizational culture is there are many things you can do to go against the flow. All companies give lip service to team work so when you get called on the carpet for doing just that you can point to all those posters on the wall as your excuse.

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