Exposed! Eight Secrets to Creating a Culture of Collaboration

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Exposed! Eight Secrets to Creating a Culture of Collaboration
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Exposed! Eight Secrets to Creating a Culture of Collaboration

Have you heard the saying that a fish doesn’t know water until he’s out of the fishbowl? The same idea is true of company culture. Each company has so many unspoken rules about how everyone behaves and works together, and they’re not even aware of what they all are!

This can easily leave a leader floundering, helpless as to why the team is unified in one moment, yet standoffish in the next.

Businesses face so many complex problems nowadays, it’s impossible to solve them alone. Every leader knows that collaboration is fundamental to saving time, money, and resources. But it can be such a struggle to get teams to trust and work together.

Heck, sometimes it’s hard just getting employees to stick around!

Fortunately, there is a key (or two) to pick the lock. A call center, Wipro, after trying every trick in the book to improve turnover rates, finally landed on a method that increased retention by 270%!

Although it may take stepping outside of familiar waters, the tools to create a collaborative culture are inside every leader’s tackle box.

Let’s look at some ways to catch and reel in a unified team

Company Culture

Defining Company Culture

First off, let’s get into what company culture is, and why collaboration matters.
Company culture refers to many facets of a company, collectively: its systems, processes, employees, leaders, and an ethos that connects them all.

Something like singing and eating cake on employees’ birthdays is a practice that shapes company culture. Policies around personal leave and vacation time do as well.

These patterns develop and grow organically, like a tree. Many stem from the early days of the business. The practices and systems that brought about the company’s early success become a fundamental part of their way of doing things.

A prescient CEO focuses on culture in order to shape a company’s future. Former IBM CEO Louis Gerstner, in his book Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance, went so far to say that culture is the only factor that shapes a business.

In its drive toward success, a company may unwittingly create a destructive culture.

For example, until several years ago, Volkswagen had a culture that prohibited failure at all costs. This perfectionism led to its 2015 fiasco, where it was caught systematically cheating emission tests.

A period where a business struggles and either lays people off, or discontinues a product, also shapes the culture.

When unhealthy practices manifest themselves, a leader needs to strategically graft a healthier culture into the business.

Integrating practices of collaboration is central to creating a culture with strong roots.

Every transparent leader knows that employees are a business’ greatest asset. In order to make good decisions, feedback and input is needed from every team.

The brainpower of a fertile, collaborative team increases exponentially. Although it may sound like a cliche, in the world of collaboration, two brains put together really does equal three!

Now let’s look at specific practices that drive a collaborative culture in an organization.

Get Everyone on the Same Page

1. Get Everyone on the Same Page

Imagine a party where the decoration team knows nothing about the plans of the catering or entertainment teams. This lack of communication could well lead to a fiasco.

When Carly Fiorina joined on as the CEO of Hewlett Packard, the business had four other CEOs who reported to her. She referred to it as a business with many fiefdoms, where the feudal lords rarely communicated.

In order to get everyone to a place where they understood one other, the company held interdepartmental meetings, where they collectively assessed every asset in the company.

This provided each fiefdom with a common frame of reference: they understood the processes, challenges, and goals of the other departments.

Similar to planning a party, every decision within a business is interconnected. Having a practice of in-person meetings between departments is central to creating a collaborative organizational culture.

Use Critical Moments to Cue Belonging

2. Use Critical Moments to Cue Belonging

It’s so common to hear couples share the story of where and how they met. All the circumstances, including eye contact, who said what to whom, and each persons’ emotion are divulged.

These aren’t simply cute or heartwarming stories. Critical moments, including first impressions and first disagreements, actually establish the norms for any relationship, both personal and professional.

Back to the call center company mentioned earlier. In an effort to resolve their chronic turnover problems, Wipro experimented with two methods of onboarding.

In the first, new hires received an hour of standard, run-of-the mill training in job duties. Afterwards, each person received a sweatshirt with Wipro’s name on it.

The second group was treated quite differently. Rather than being instructed about the job, the trainees were asked questions like “Tell me what happens on your best day?” and “Tell me what happens on your worst day?” and “What would you bring with you on a desert island?” At the end of the hour, these trainees received a sweatshirt with their own names written on it.

After seven months, the company followed up with each group, and found the retention rate in the second group was 2.7 times higher than the first!

What went right with the second group? At a critical moment–the first encounter–Wipro established a strong connection with the new hire. This connection created a solid foundation of acceptance and trust.

In order to establish norms of collaboration within a team, then, it’s important to seize these critical moments. By connecting personally with employees during first encounters, and during the first disagreement, a system of trust is set up.

Send Vulnerable Signals Again and Again

3. Send Vulnerable Signals Again and Again

Have you ever tried talking to someone, and the more you pried, the more they clammed up?

A leader knows that he or she doesn’t have all the answers. In order to solve problems, everyone on the team needs to share information and discuss. So even if people seem as stubborn as an oyster, it’s important to tease and twist to get them to open up.

How to do this? Well it’s not always easy. Here’s a suggestion.

Imagine you were at an elegant party, and the host dropped their dinner plate with a crash onto the floor. How might the atmosphere at the party change Chances are, any tension in the air would clear up, and guests would start letting their hair down and unbuttoning their sleeves.

Similarly, when a leader demonstrates vulnerability, it opens the team up to a space of sharing and trust. This doesn’t (necessarily) entail staging a blooper or fall.

Rather, it’s about consistently acknowledging that you need to know more. Laszlo Boch, formerly of Google, used to regularly send his employees this two-line email: “Tell me one thing you want me to keep doing, and one thing you want me to stop doing?”

With this simple message, he communicated several things: there is more I can learn, you can teach me, and it’s safe to open up here.

When a leader regularly sends signals of vulnerability, the climate becomes one in which team members feel safe sharing the precious pearls of their unique insight and wisdom.

4. Foster Collaborative Meetings

Do you ever have a friend that you never get to see, and when you finally do, you gush and gush to catch up, knowing that if you don’t make the most of the conversation, you may not have the opportunity again?

A meeting, similarly, is a valuable window in which to solve problems and arrive at a consensus around an issue. It’s critical to make this time collaborative. Here are three pointers.

First of all, it’s important that everyone understands and agrees on the problem and the purpose of the meeting. Although this may be outlined in the agenda, the leader needs to establish clarity on this at the beginning, and to make sure everyone is in agreement.

Secondly, before hashing things out, everyone needs to connect on a human level. This could mean having everyone share why they think the problem is important, tell something about themselves, or offer what they bring to the table.

Lastly, it’s important everyone set aside position and title, and relate to one another as peers. Within a level playing field, people contribute equally and so more insight is gathered.

5. Align Processes and Systems

Align Processes and Systems

When you set out on a long journey, you of course need to know your destination. But that’s definitely not the only thing to consider. It’s also necessary to acquire all of the equipment needed to get you there.

In a similar way, a collaborative culture needs to be aligned in several areas.
Principally, everyone must understand the goals of the business, or the problems to be solved. Then, roles need to be assigned.

Oftentimes, a goal has eluded a company for some time. This usually means the existing system isn’t working. Achieving the goal, then, entails re-shaping the status quo.

It’s also necessary to establish metrics around goals: to know when they’re meant to be accomplished, and then to reflect periodically on the progress.

And finally, leaders need to be explicit about the behavior that is expected. Is he or she looking for innovation? Risk taking? Collaboration? Stating the expectation outright, then providing training, makes sure everyone is on the same page.

6. Promote Collaborative People

Have you ever read through company reviews on Glassdoor? One criticism that regularly comes up is who was and wasn’t promoted.

A promotion sends a shock of lightning through a business. Everyone notices, and the message is unmistakable.

Not surprisingly, a company where people shift around constantly, projects are abandoned, and people are promoted due to personal friendships with the boss, doesn’t receive a five-star review. This practice sends a crystal clear message of cronyism and dysfucntion.

A culture is built gradually over time, with repeated patterns of behavior. And things like promotion and rewards are central to shaping it.

When a company promotes and rewards employees for demonstrating strong collaborative skills, it signals to everyone else that cooperation is a core value. This behavior then becomes aspired to and emulated.

Connect and Engage Consistently

7. Connect and Engage Consistently

In addition to seizing on critical moments, a collaborative culture is also built with practices of consistent engagement.

When a leader connects on a regular basis, everyone knows they’re cared for, listened to, and part of the team.

This can be as simple as making a morning round to everyone’s desk and catching up on their lives, families, vacations and other out-of-work activities. Being present in the conversation and following up later lets everyone feel valued and heard.

Another way to keep everyone in the loop is with a weekly email full of the latest happenings in the company. When the email includes a personal story from your life, people tend to engage and relate.

This kind of cohesion creates trust and sharing, which are essential to collaborative culture.

Challenge “Leave Well Enough Alone” Mentality

8. Challenge “Leave Well Enough Alone” Mentality

How often do you look at Yelp to decide whether or not to go to a restaurant?

Although online feedback tools are great, one drawback is that they discourage innovation: businesses are concerned about taking risks, for fear it will generate poor feedback and the business will suffer.

In a similar way, a culture where criticism is regularly dished out, is also one where an employee may well simply decide to let a problem fester.

Or, like Volkswagen, a culture with zero tolerance for failure, is ripe territory for unethical practices to emerge.

This sort of fear doesn’t exist within a collaborative culture. Criticism is measured, and dispensed constructively through appropriate channels.

Additionally, a collaborative environment is one in which innovation is celebrated. Even if an idea fails, putting it out there and giving it a go is a success. As Edison taught us with his invention of the light-bulb, sometimes it takes 1,000 times to fail at a great idea before getting it right.


It’s tempting to harbour an image of a collaborative business as a place where people lock arms, sway, and sing Kumbaya.

But this isn’t really the case. In a collaborative culture, people in fact work through a lot of tension. Difficult problems are aired, argued through, and resolved. Friction is actually a healthy sign, as it means that problems are faced and not allowed to fester.

The telling characteristic for collaborative workspaces is that tension is aired in an environment of acceptance and mutual respect.

What methods do you use to collaborate with your team?


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