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How to Improve Collaboration When People Don't Want to Work Together

Poor collaboration is not a just a people's problem, but a relationship issue. Design a culture that promotes cross-team collaboration, not individualism.

By Gustavo Razzetti

April 14, 2021

You can't enforce collaboration (remote or in-person), but you can build a workplace culture that makes it easier and more rewarding to collaborate.

Poor collaboration isn't a people's problem, but a cultural issue. When Microsoft ditched its performance review system, it got rid of more than just an obsolete process.

Microsoft's stack-ranking system was meant to foster high-performing teams. However, requiring managers to rate all employees according to a bell-curve pattern did more harm than good. Microsoft's performance review system incentivized people to compete against each other rather than work together.

It takes more than smart people and a shared direction to make magic happen. Your company culture should reward the right things – collaboration over competition.

In this post, I will share why teams fail to collaborate, what to do about it, and actionable ideas to increase collaboration.  

Collaboration Depends on Relationships, Not Just People

It's easy to play the blame game and point fingers when team members fail to work together. That's the mistake most leaders make. They focus on the individual rather than on the culture; they encourage people to play make-believe just to please their managers. This illusion of collaboration quickly turns into a trap, as I wrote here.

Collaboration is not just about people, but about building strong relationships.

Human nature is collaborative by design – we thrive when we're part of something bigger than ourselves. However, we are not open to collaborating with everyone ; we choose who we want to work with as well as who we don't.

Integrating diverse perspectives is crucial to driving creativity and innovation. Unfortunately, we only like to collaborate with those we trust or whom are just like us. A lack of shared interests and weak interpersonal relationships are vital barriers to collaboration.

An analysis of Fortune's 100 best companies to work for shows that collaborative cultures score higher in "you can count on others to cooperate" (86%) and "people care about each other" (91%). According to Gallup, those who have a best friend at work are seven times more likely to be engaged in their jobs and more open to working with others.

Respect and trust are critical, but so is feeling familiar with the colleagues you collaborate with. The size of the team matters – a lot.

A study by the Concours Institute and London Business School shows that as a team's size increases beyond 20 members, the willingness to collaborate decreases. It's not that larger groups can't cooperate, but that it requires much more effort and design.

Analyzing the data, the lead researchers discovered that when 20% to 40% of the team members have strong relationships, a team is set up for (collaboration) success.

The more experts in a team, the more likely they will engage in unproductive conflict or ego trips. Collaboration doesn't thrive in a culture that promotes internal competition.

Microsoft is famous for its know-it-all leaders who were convinced that no one was a match for their bright minds. Bill Gates, then Steve Ballmer, became the standard of superior intellect – they like to dominate their subordinates.

Effective collaboration is based on differences, not sameness. That requires promoting psychological safety.

Within hierarchies or under fear, we tend to suppress our differences and perspectives to avoid being put on the spot or punished. Conversely, we make more contributions when we feel like we're within a group of equals without conforming to the majority.

A Culture of Collaboration: The New Tribes

As human beings, we like to belong to a group. We achieve more working together than on our own. According to Seth Godin, a tribe is a group of people connected to one another, to a leader, and to an idea.

Both old and new tribes enable people to identify emotionally with the group and pursue a shared purpose that is good for everyone. Modern tribes, however, foster individual contributions – instead of closed communities, diverse perspectives are welcome.

We need a new tribe – one that's designed for collaboration.

As the authors of Diversity and Tribal Thinking in the Collaborative Organization wrote, "The tribalism emerging in this new paradigm of a collaborative economy is a sign of modernity, not of regression to darker times; the new emerging tribes enhance our individual freedoms, fostering individual contributions."

Not all tribes are made equal. Microsoft leaders surrounded themselves almost exclusively with leaders who mimicked their behavior. They created a rigid tribe where every manager looked and acted the same

Modern tribes are more open; people can join and leave easily. They are interconnected with other tribes, less hierarchical, and collaborate with external and internal members.

The most crucial difference is that modern tribes, unlike old ones, are formed out of differences – they're bound together by a shared purpose.

As the authors explain, modern tribes don't provide a permanent shelter, but a temporary space to collaborate. Once the purpose is accomplished – or no longer serves us – we can leave.

Organizational silos are subcultures, but not all subcultures are silos. Don't expect all teams to share one culture. That's one of the biggest mistakes when looking to increase cross-team collaboration.

Understanding and respecting the power of subcultures is vital for effective cross-team collaboration. The simple act of sharing information or resources with 'outsiders' makes us feel threatened. It goes beyond being protective; we fear our team's identity is at stake.

Start by aligning the team on a shared purpose and outcome – why we want to collaborate and what we want to achieve together.

Create clear rules about what will be shared and how. Most importantly, respect each team's identity. Collaboration across teams requires joining a temporary tribe until they can go back to the one that they belong to – not to let go of who we are.

A culture of collaboration - download MURAL template

How to Create a Culture of Collaboration

Promote Intellectual Humility

The greater the proportion of know-it-alls in a team, the more likely it is to disintegrate into a stalemate. Intellectual arrogance gets in the way of collaboration.

When Satya Nadella took over Microsoft's reins, he knew from first-hand experience that things had to change. Microsoft is no longer a technology-centric or sales-centric organization; Nadella replaced his predecessors' style with a culture-centric approach.

His vision is to transform Microsoft from a "know-it-all" to a "learn-it-all" culture. Nadella is on a quest to replace intellectual arrogance with a "growth mindset" – by promoting intellectual humility, he wants employees to ask better questions and challenge their fixed beliefs.

Find the Team's Glue

The most striking difference between old tribes and new ones is that, while the first were formed around similarities, people now join tribes because of differences. They want to learn from and collaborate with members with different skills and perspectives.

A shared purpose brings them together. Finding the glue that holds your team together will accelerate collaboration.

At Google, getting to work with exceptional professionals, pursuing new opportunities, and solving a narrow problem glues people together. After a short period, the team is disbanded or moves on to a new challenge.

Design a team purpose before you kick off a project with a new team.

Reframe Compensation & Reward Systems

One of the most frequent reasons I see companies fail to collaborate is that they promote collective behaviors but reward individual metrics. Although some organizations have adjusted their bonus system to account for collective actions, it's not enough.

As extensive research by Daniel Pink shows, incentives are mostly counterproductive – they reduce rather than increase performance. Instead of doing meaningful work with others, people focus on how to beat the system to get "my bonus." That's why culture went wrong at Microsoft, Enron, Boeing, and Theranos.

In Reinventing Organizations, Frédéric Laloux shows how Teal organizations share some part of the profit with all employees – in some, everyone receives the same percentage over their salary; in others, everyone gets the same amount.

Another important practice is erasing barriers between groups – such as white and blue-collar employees – that hinder collaboration. AES and FAVI have replaced hourly wages with monthly salaries for shop floor operators.

Who Shall I Talk To?

One of the most common barriers to collaboration is not knowing who to reach out to for help. When a team member is working on a project and needs information, input, or support, they don't know where to get started.

Salesforce has an internal Chatter group called Who Should I Talk To? If someone has some feedback on the product, an idea for a new product, or some thoughts about what can be improved, this discussion group is the place to go. It helps connect people with the right person or team. By creating connections, Salesforce facilitates collaboration.

Make Everyone Replaceable

The scarcity mentality harms collaboration. Thinking that we are irreplaceable creates a barrier to collaboration. Rotating roles is an effective way to let go of our attachment to a title or position.

Prepare people to be replaced by others.

At Standard Chartered Bank, the members of the management committee usually serve as substitutes for each other. They all understand the peculiarities of the business and can quickly fill in for each other. When a member needs to attend a celebration, talk to the press, or interact with employees, any board member can cover for the rest.

Use Rituals to Strengthen Relationships

Creating strong bonding across team members facilitates collaboration. By discovering similar interests or things in common, a team ritual can help turn strangers into colleagues.

At construction equipment company Hilti, employees love to enjoy a "Culture Walk." This ritual, similar to speed dating, provides an experience for people to better understand each other. Participants go for a walk in a line arranged two-by-two and answer four questions – a mix of personal and professional topics.

Every five minutes, members on the right will move up to the next person, ensuring everyone has a chance to speak to each other.

Create an Ideas Platform

A Steelcase study shows that technology in organizations is usually available to those who use it the least. For example, senior leaders (63%) tend to have access to more advanced tools like smart boards, while only 33% of employees reported having access to the latest technology.

Collaborative platforms can provide an even space to promote collaboration across different departments, regions, and levels.

Accenture has its IdeasHarvester Platform to include employees, solve problems, and make decisions together. People can share topics, provide feedback, or vote on ideas. The technology brings everyone together, breaking down geographical or hierarchical barriers. Since its inception, more than 50,000 ideas have been submitted.

Remove Formal Barriers

Collaboration needs to happen across the board. Unfortunately, while cross-functional team members are expected to collaborate, their managers play by a different set of rules.

As John Cutler wrote, companies are trying to transform by only changing how front-line teams work. However, outside the teams, no one else is collaborating.

In most companies, middle managers are anything but collaborative. They are either too busy or too focused on their individual goals. Shouldn't you make the mid management cross-functional, too?

At ING Direct Canada, employees have no job titles and no offices – anyone can talk to anyone. Leaders focus on removing obstacles, not on becoming one.

Make Space for Collaboration

As organizations are considering getting back to the office, it's critical to rethink the space experience.

Research by Steelcase shows that most offices are not designed for good collaboration – open spaces are too noisy and exposed, while most conferences are more suitable for board meetings than for brainstorming or collaborative sessions.

The new headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland includes an atrium to promote casual encounters. Similarly, most offices at Ikea have a giant central staircase that's perfect for informal meetings. At Spotify, all walls have whiteboards.

Let Team Ambassadors Negotiate Conflict

Most companies still rely on outsiders to facilitate collaboration. They encourage cross-functional teams to work together but, when there's conflict, managers or HR have to intervene.

French FAVI manufactures die casting parts for the most renowned groups in the automotive industry. As the company is organized in mini-factories each servicing a different client, balancing the workload per team is a huge challenge.

However, employees have come up with a solution that doesn't require external mediation. Each mini-factory names an ambassador to represent its interests. All representatives regularly get together to discuss production workload. The purpose of those conversations is to understand which team needs extra help and which one will provide it.

Let People Choose When to Collaborate

Collaboration thrives in freedom, not in control. When people are forced to collaborate, they resist it. However, when you give people the freedom to work together, they focus on the common good.

At leading videogame developer Valve, employees are not told what to do. Instead, they're expected to work where they can be of most value to the company. Valve encourages people to ask themselves, "What's the most rewarding work that will leverage my abilities?" or "What's the most valuable thing I can work on?"

Giving people the freedom to choose encourages employees to collaborate because they want to, not because they have to.

Create a Collaborative Network

Haier, based in Qingdao, China, is not only the world's largest appliance maker but the model that many want to follow when it comes to organizing for the future of work. With revenue of $35 billion and 75,000 employees globally, Haier's RenDanHeYi model departs from bureaucratic norms in critical ways.

The company has divided itself into more than 4,000 microenterprises, most of which have 10 to 15 employees. Although some MEs have larger payrolls, particularly in manufacturing, decisions are still made by small autonomous teams.

In traditional organizations, teams are forced to 'purchase' services from other departments such as legal, HR, etc., regardless of whether or not they are good. Haier operates like a big marketplace – MEs are free to buy (or not) services from other MEs.

At Haier, collaboration is fueled by the desire to win internal customers. Each micro-enterprise can choose when to collaborate and when to go alone.

Involve People in Defining Priorities

Working in things that matter is critical to engage people. You can't expect team members to collaborate when priorities are only determined by leaders.

The 25/10 crowdsourcing is a liberating structure that helps a large crowd generate and sort the best ideas for action. At Procore, the engineering team used this activity to identify which key ideas could move the organization forward.

350 employees were involved in coming up with multiple ideas. After different iterations, 7 key initiatives were uncovered. The senior executive team reframed the issues from a leadership perspective, inviting everyone to collaborate in the initiatives everyone identified.  

Does Your Team Work Together?

When collaboration is not working, I see leaders blaming the silos. Although many organizations have subcultures that prefer to stay under the radar and not collaborate with others, culture – not people – is the biggest barrier.

Use the Culture Design Canvas to map how the different blocks of your company culture are either promoting or hindering collaboration.

Review your norms and rules to ensure what you preach is aligned with what you reward. Do people feel safe collaborating with strangers? How can you create cross-team collaboration without harming each team's identity?

You can’t impose collaboration. If your team isn't working together, don't blame people or remote work. Instead, focus on designing a culture that promotes collaboration, not internal competition.

Get the Culture Design Canvas Template

The Culture Design Canvas was designed by Gustavo Razzetti to help organizations and teams map, assess, and design their workplace culture.

Read the licensing and use terms.

Join our Culture Design Masterclass

Download Culture Design Canvas (PDF) – By signing up you'll receive the facilitation guide, additional reading, and examples

Download the MURAL template of the How to Build a Culture of Collaboration

Facilitation Guide and Intro to the Culture Design Canvas

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