One my most popular speaking topics is “Harnessing the Power of Collaboration.” The topic’s popularity stems from corporate clients around the world realizing that “silo mentality” and knowledge hoarding behaviors are wasting the kind of collective brainpower that could save their organization billions, or lead to the discovery of a revolutionary new process or product, or, in the current economic climate, help keep their company afloat when others are sinking!

And it’s not just corporate profits that suffer when collaboration is low: the workforce loses something too. Individuals lose the opportunity to work in the kind of inclusive environment that energizes teams, releases creativity and makes working together both productive and joyful.

From my upcoming seminars, here are seven insights for harnessing the power of collaboration:

1. Collaboration is a leadership issue. In trying to capture and communicate the cumulative wisdom of a workforce, the public and private sectors have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in portals, software, and intranets. But collaboration is more than the technology that supports it, and even more than a business strategy aimed at optimizing a organization’s experience and expertise. Collaboration is, first and foremost, a change in attitude and behavior of people throughout an organization. Successful collaboration is a leadership issue.

2. Collaboration is essential for organizational change. Over the past 25 years, I’ve worked with a variety of very talented leaders, and one thing I know for sure: Regardless of how creative, smart and savvy a leader may be, he or she can’t transform an organization, a department or a team without the brain power and commitment of others. Whether the change involves creating new products, services, processes – or a total reinvention of how the organization must look, operate, and position itself for the future – success dictates that the individuals impacted by change be involved in the change from the very beginning. 

3. Visioning is a team sport. Today’s most successful leaders guide their organizations not through command and control, but through a shared purpose and vision. These leaders adopt and communicate a vision of the future that impels people beyond the boundaries and limits of the past. But if the future vision belongs only to top management, it will never be an effective motivator for the workforce. The power of a vision comes truly into play only when the employees themselves have had some part in its creation.

4. Diversity is crucial. Experiments at the University of Michigan found that, when challenged with a difficult problem, groups composed of highly adept members performed worse than groups whose members had varying levels of skill and knowledge. The reason for this seemingly odd outcome has to do with the power of diverse thinking. Diversity causes people to consider perspectives and possibilities that would otherwise be ignored. Group members who think alike or are trained in similar disciplines with similar bases of knowledge run the risk of becoming insular in their ideas. Instead of exploring alternatives, a confirmation bias takes over and members tend to reinforce one another’s predisposition.

5. Relationships are key.The outcome of any collaborative effort is dependent upon well-developed personal relationships among participants. Not allowing time for this can be a costly mistake. For example, all too often, in the rush to get started on a project, team leaders put people together and tell them to “get to work.” This approach proves less than productive, as the group hasn’t had time to get to know one another, to discover each other’s strengths and weaknesses, to build trust, nor to develop a common understanding and vision for the project.

6. Trust is the glue. Trust is the belief or confidence that one party has in the reliability, integrity and honesty of another party. It is the expectation that the faith one places in someone else will be honored. I recently conducted a survey of middle managers in an attempt to pinpoint the state of trust and knowledge sharing in their various organizations. What I found is a crisis of trust: suspicious and cynical employees are disinclined to collaborate – sharing knowledge is still perceived as weakening a personal “power base.” And, despite lots of lip service to the contrary, too many corporate leaders still don’t trust employees with the kind of open communication that is the foundation of informed collaboration.

7. Body language matters. I’m writing a new book on the role of body language in effective leadership, and am collecting examples of the “body language blunders” that leaders make. (BTW: If you have an example, I’d love to hear from you.) Here’s one that highlights the fact that when a leader’s verbal support for collaboration conflicts with his or her nonverbal behavior, an audience will disregard the words and believe the body language:

I was in an important meeting, and the presenter was telling the group how much he welcomed any input we could provide. But at the same time he was using both his hands to nonverbally push the entire group away. The amazing thing was that he repeated this sequence several times, always saying that he would welcome our input while making the exactly the same “push back” gesture. It was all I could do not to absolutely lose it and laugh out loud. I almost did, but that would not have been good!

Today’s corporation exists in an increasingly complex and ever-shifting ocean of change. As a result, leaders need to rely more than ever on the intelligence and resourcefulness of their staff. Collaboration is not a “nice to have” organizational philosophy. It is an essential ingredient for organizational survival and success.

About the author:
Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., is an executive coach, author and keynote speaker who addresses association, government, and business audiences around the world. Her latest book is The Nonverbal Advantage – Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work. For more information, contact Carol by phone (510-526-1727) e-mail (CGoman@CKG.com) or through her Web sites (www.CKG.com and www.NonverbalAdvantage.com).