If you tell me that your leader does not focus on collaboration, you would be lying.

Collaboration is the father of innovation and creativity. According to Forbes, 93% of executive leaders believe that collaboration is an essential element linked to successful idea generation.

Organisation after organisation aim to create this ‘culture’ of collaboration. They ceaselessly carve out conscientious plans to implement this so-called concept of collaboration but fail miserably. The reason way they fail is because they do not realise that collaboration is something that requires specific skills. And what do we know about skills? We can enhance and upgrade them when we work hard at it.

When leaders are asked about the implementation of robust collaboration methods- they start sounding like a broken record- ‘We do so much and have nothing to show for it’. When leaders view collaboration as a value that needs to be engrained into the culture of their organisation, they forget that collaboration is not a value to instil but rather a skill that can be taught.

People needs to scrap the idea that an open office will yield more opportunity for collaboration (although it does increase collaboration) and they need to start understating the psychology behind collaboration.

Harvard Business Review researched different organisations to understand why some organisations get gold in collaboration while others merely get a certificate for participation. Upon observing different organisations, a shared theme emerged: a common mental attitude. This attitude was characterised by widespread respect for colleagues’ contributions, displaying openness that allowed for the exploration and experimentation of others’ ideas as well as the innate sensitivity slash self-awareness and having the ability to look inward which positively influences the way you act outwardly.

Do these attitudes sound familiar in your workplace? Generally, these attitudes do not exist outside of the workplace never mind on the inside.

There however is still hope. Harvard Business identified 6 specific tools that focus on the psychology behind collaboration. These tools will not only enhance collaboration but overcome the psychological barriers that get in the way of achieving collaboration.

If collaboration is such an important concept in organisations- why do so many organisations struggle to harvest it?

The barriers to collaboration exist in four separate categories; access to people in the company, access to important information, dated technology and distractions. These are the aspects, among many more, that kill collaboration and you have probably heard it before. What many organisations fail to acknowledge is the psychology behind collaboration. Yes, you can create an open working environment that boosts innovative and lightbulb thinking moments- but is that really enough?

1) Stop talking and start listening

Think about what you do in a meeting. Are you listening to what the person is saying so that you can construct an answer that sounds intelligent and innovative? So many of us are concerned with presenting the best version of ourselves during meetings and discussions with our bosses that we end up preparing how to speak rather that listening to what the other person is saying. We do not listen because we are too concerned and anxious about our own performance or convinced we have better ideas than our teammates- sometimes it is even both. This disregards everything your team members have expressed and diminishes the team’s ability to be effective. When we truly listen, we are able to truly understand one another and focus on the mission instead of trying to look and sound smart. Here are a few things you can do to improve your listening:

  • Remain curious by asking expansive questions: Organisations can benefit from providing a class that allows individuals to stay curious and constantly ask questions. Curiosity sparks learning. Remaining curious also allows for team members to engage in active listening by resisting the urge to talk over and dominate others, make it all about yourself, and rather make it about you understanding the implications of their words.
  • Remain focused on the listener- it is not all about you: Implementing role plays that educate your team on the difference between active listening and not really listening at all. Your team will be able to pick up which individual is active listening and provide them the opportunity to re-enact the process using more efficient methods.
  • Do your “self-checks”: When you look inwards, you can be more observant and aware of your own tendencies. This awareness will allow you to critique your tendencies and be mindful when interacting with others. You can put your team into smaller groups where they share their stories of failed active listening. This learning can be further enhanced by bringing in role plays with the aim of having team members learn what it feels like to not be heard.
  • Stay in silence and be comfortable with it: We have heard the saying that silence is an answer in itself. When you are listening to others, having brief spurts of silence communicates to the other person that you hear them and that you respect what they have to say. Individuals that tend to be a little more vocal than others may be guilty of not using silence when needed.

2) Learn how to practice empathy

We were not made to get along with everyone, otherwise life would be rather boring. When we get into conflict with colleagues, research suggests that you start feeling as though your colleague is uncaring or that they may not be a full box of chocolates. Trying to get along with people you do not necessarily get along with can be a daunting task but when we approach a situation with the intention to understand our differences, we are likely to experience a more positive outcome. Successful collaborations are characterised by assuming that each individual involved (regardless of obvious differences) is a smart and caring person. When you mentally create that narrative of people, you reframe the way you visualise them which paves the way you engage in conversations. Curiosity is enhanced and you learn to value their perspective as much as you value your own. Here are a few things you can implement:

  • Assist others by expanding their thinking: Often we listen with the intention of putting our thoughts and ideas into the conversation instead of listening to help the other person expand on their ideas naturally. We need to become better at asking questions that stimulate others thinking without forcing our ideas down their throats.
  • Often the unspoken is the most important: It is important to pay attention to what individuals are not saying. Providing sufficient feedback not only on what is said but the way someone said something and they way they presented themself is useful. When we dig deeper and observe the body language of others and comment on it- we allow others to feel more satisfied with the way the conversation went- because they were seen and heard for the things that aren’t visible and the things that were not said.

3) Become comfortable with feedback

Feedback often leaves a bad taste in your mouth. But when it is done correctly and comes from a position of influence rather than authority- it can be an enlightening experience. Here are a few methods that you can implement as a leader:

  • Feedback aversion should be openly discussed: Leaders should provide effective feedback on a more frequent basis while ensuring their team absorbs it. None of us are necessarily thrilled about counting down the days until you receive feedback like the way you would count down the days to a holiday. We do not respond well to criticism as our brains try and protect us against anything that tries to harm us. Leaders need to remember that we want to improve but we also want to be accepted for who we are. Striking that balance can be difficult.
  • Feedback should be direct, specific, and applicable: Feedback can be too general. By being straight forward in the manner that you address the individual about what they did and said the feedback will be more impactful. Focus on identifying and explaining the behaviour that worked or did not work, and then describe the impact of the behaviour. This is closely aligned to the SBI model of feedback which encourages individuals to provide feedback that is specific, related to the individual’s behaviour, and provides a description of the impact that their behaviour had on others around them.
  • Feedback upon feedback: Ask someone to give you feedback on the way you have given feedback. This way you can practice the way you wish to present feedback and become more comfortable in providing feedback to your team.
  • It’s called adding a “plus”: When providing feedback to someone in a brainstorming session, you should add a “plus” to their idea. This “plus” is defined as one small thing you can add to someone’s idea or an improvement to the idea without taking over their idea or dismissing it. Using a “plus” is most beneficial in environments that maintain a high level of trust and psychological safety. Ensure psychological safety and trust exists in abundance before you implement the “plus”.

4) It is all about learning how to lead and follow

Research and literature have focused a great deal on leadership and how to become an excellent leader. But what research has failed to mention is that it is also just as important to be an even better follower. However, recent research has revealed that companies that possess the best collaborators are the individuals that add value to interactions, solve problems and left individuals better off than where they found them. These individuals have learned how to successfully tap into being a leader and a follower when necessary. This is known as being good at flexing. Those that are great at flexing are the individuals that are okay with giving other individuals control. This is how you can become better at flexing:

  • Increase your self-awareness: Think about a time where you had to rate your performance. Time and time again individuals are seen to rate themselves higher due to them inherently possessing overly optimistic self-perceptions. This could be the reason that you are not willing to give control to others. Learn from this awareness and determine ways in which you can start letting go of certain things you control as a leader so you can flex into the follower role when required.
  • Learn how to delegate: Many think that delegation is something only a leader does. But when you are collaborating with individuals on cross-functional team projects, you need to delegate whether you are a leader or not. Leaders often struggle to pass the baton on because of the fear of it not being done “correctly”. But when we pass the baton on it leads to the development of team members. This act will build their confidence in themselves as well as give you peace of mind that the work is completed in the manner you delegated.

5) Speaking clearly with no room for misunderstandings

We have all been in the situation where you leave a meeting and have no cooking clue about what was going on. There comes a point in brainstorming sessions where someone, whether it is the leader or not, needs to ensure that all confusion is clarified and that everyone is aligned on the way forward. Psychological research suggests that when we communicate, we often leave room for interpretation and abstractness. If we focus on communicating in a manner that is more concrete, our words will carry more weight and leave fewer people confused in the boardroom. Practice creating concrete statements and expressing that to your team. Leave no room for further interpretation and allow someone to call you out when you communicate in an abstract manner.

6) It is all about the win-win interactions

When you create an environment that is focused on allowing all individuals to explore, be open about their personal interests and explain how they feel they can contribute to solving the problem- you achieve collaboration. This environment encourages the team to listen to each other’s vision of winning which will lead to obtaining the most favourable results. Numerous organisations focus on teaching their leaders and employees to focus on the win-win solutions. These scenarios can be created where one individual has the information that the other person needs- and they are meant to collaborate with one another to achieve the overall goal that is suited to everyone in the team. This goal is often achieved through a fine balance of asking questions and letting the rest of your team know what your understanding is of their needs.

These tips are of course the foundations for creating an environment that is centred around collaboration. However, sometimes we just find it impossible to work with certain individuals. Maybe this person rubbed you up the wrong way, maybe they steal your limelight, maybe you just do not get along with them. Collaborating with individuals you do not necessarily get along with can become a consuming and tedious task. Here are a few things you can consider when engaging in collaborative tasks with that colleague you do not really want to work with:

Reflection is key: What is the cause of the tension you are experiencing with your colleague and how are you responding to it? You need to access the potential value that you can gain from each interaction. Go into a conversation or collaboration with an open mind with the intention to learn. Take a hard and honest look within and determine what is causing the friction in the collaboration. You cannot control the way others act but you can control your own reactions.

Make an effort to understand the other person’s perspective: I can assure you that most people do not wake up in the morning with a fully detailed plan on how they are going to ruin your day. Be deliberate in understanding the other persons viewpoint, especially if they play an essential role to your success. Think about these questions you can ask yourself: Why is this person behaving in this way? What is the motivation behind their perspective? How do they view me? How can I be involved?

Problem-solving should override critiquing: It is not you against the world. When collaborating, it is essential to shift from the competitive stance to a stance that is more collaborative in nature. When you and a colleague are not the best of friends, one way to confront this is to give them the problem. Have a conversation with them and be open and honest (in a tasteful manner) about not being able to work well together. This may influence the other person to also be open about the strenuous working relationship that you find yourselves in.

Sometimes our personalities clash: Another great way to connect with colleagues is to be personally aware of your own interpersonal style. What is your personality and why could that be the reason that you are clashing with a colleague? The Myers-Briggs personality assessment is a great tool that can be used to determine your personality. Sharing your personality with colleagues allows for a greater understanding and sense of empathy when collaborating with others. Some organisations encourage employees to openly share their Myers-Briggs personality profiles with their colleagues which often leads to more successful and positively challenging environments for colleagues.

Ask questions and ask for help: When you ask open-ended questions, you create a space where purposeful conversation can flourish without individuals getting on their high horses. Asking questions creates a space where you can work on problems together while making each other feel comfortable. Alongside asking questions, you should not hesitate to ask for help. Asking someone you do not necessarily get along with for help allows the other person to feel that their opinion and intelligence is acknowledged and valued.

Collaboration is shifting from being a ‘nice to have’ in organisations to a ‘must have’. With this organisational mind shift comes a leader mind shift. And this mind shift is characterised by the fear of being left behind. As a leader try not being concerned with being left behind but use it as fuel to ignite inventive and inspiring collaborative ideas within your team.


Forbes. (2019). 4 Collaboration Barriers- And How To overcome Them. Retrieved from


Forbes. (2019). 8 Ways Leaders Foster Collaboration. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolkinseygoman/2019/04/09/8-ways-leaders-foster-collaboration/#622c6ec55cc8

Harvard Business Review. (2019). Cracking the Code on Collaboration.

Harvard Business Review. (2018). How to Collaborate with People You Don’t Like. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2018/12/how-to-collaborate-with-people-you-dont-like

Smartsheet. (n,d). A Winning Combination: Collaborative Teamwork Equals Teamwork and Collaboration. Retrieved from https://www.smartsheet.com/collaborative-teamwork

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