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Collaborative working: good luck with that!

I’ve been consulting with a huge American tech company for over 20 years, and every year there seems to be a new mission to accomplish. This then gets broken into a subset of behaviours of some sort, and in there without fail, year after year, is a version of “Collaborative working.”

This suggests to me that collaborative working has not embedded into their culture (because otherwise why keep on restating it rather than taking it as a given?). Why, I wonder, is that?

Knowing them as well as I do, it is not hard to pinpoint why they are struggling so much with this. The various cultural dysfunctions which hold them back are by no means unique to this organisation, in my experience. You might like to reflect on how many of my list of the Top 5 you recognise around you. You shouldn’t have to look far, because most of them stem from the Boardroom and you probably bump into them most days.

1.Lack of Trust
Unless people trust each other, they will never truly collaborate. Trust levels in the workplace are being undermined like never before, partly due to the erosion of relationships caused by cost cutting and continued pressure to do more and more in increasingly less time (see my point 3), and partly because of what is happening outside: the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer points to 55% of employees globally feeling at risk of job automation, and 57% fearing the negative impact on their organisation of trade policies and tariffs. Continued political polarisation and fragmentation is leading to a world in which the middle ground (where collaboration can take place) seems to have disappeared, and instead we end up simply shouting at each other and refusing to budge from our bunkers. If you want to look at what non-collaboration looks like, you only have to turn on the TV and watch the latest Brexit update to see it.

Trust takes a long time to build and a second to break. How are trust levels around you, and if they are not what they could be, how can you expect your employees to trust each other?

2.Competitive culture
You can’t credibly espouse Collaboration when you have set up the organisation to encourage competitiveness. The company I am thinking of as I write this has built (and I’m not sure it has been done unconsciously) metrics by which it lives and breathes which foster competition between functions. A simple example: Function A’s primary role is to drive out cost, and Function B exists solely to improve the customer experience. Both functions exist within the Supply Chain, and both are hit on the head with sticks when they don’t achieve the necessary number.

Might it be that you have some unwitting conflicts between functions based on what you measure? If what gets measured gets done (I happen to believe this is the case), is it time for a rethink, and might you need to integrate some new metrics which reward collaboration?

3,Weak relationships
Effective collaboration relies on great relationships between individuals. Give me time to sit down with you and share my situation, including the challenges I’m working on, my ideas, the possible synergies between us and so on, and then to hear your side of the story, and you and I have a decent chance of finding common ground. Trouble is this is increasingly unlikely. Time taken to build relationships (and the expense of doing so face to face) is under the cosh, and if I am chasing a short term goal, the first thing to go will be investment in the “soft and fluffy” stuff which can’t be measured and thus reported on.

I continue to be amazed at the stories I hear of employees who have never met their line manager face to face, let alone their team mates. And when they do, the conversation tends to be a short term tactical one about progress against the plan rather than a more coaching-based exploration of options for the future, and the possibilities for collaboration. People have forgotten the basics for building relationships, I fear: how to ask a good question, how to listen, show empathy and so on. The result is erosion of the basic skills of inter-relating, which I would argue is key to Collaboration. Dare I say it, people simply no longer know how to.

4.Short termism
The trouble with Collaboration is that it takes time and the results aren’t always immediate. That is problematic if your culture is anything like the one I am thinking of which is sales-led and focusses primarily on short term results (literally, the number one figure this organisation focuses on is the weekly sales revenue).

When people are so conditioned to think short term it is incongruent and confusing for them to say at the same time that you want them to think collaboratively. You can’t have both.

5.Unclear goals and priorities
This brings me to my final point, which is that it is hard to collaborate when you are confused about what you are trying to achieve. Collaboration requires a common vision and sense of purpose, and if this cannot be clearly articulated, don’t be surprised when it doesn’t happen.

Try asking a random employee or two what they think your organisation’s number one priority is and see what answers you get. Or ask several of them to tell you what the point of their job is: you may or may not be surprised to find out how confused they are, or at best inconsistent.

Setting a clear vision, direction and sense of purpose, in words which mean something and produce a collective understanding of what is important might well be the first and most useful thing you could do to set up the conditions for collaboration.

Michael Brown – Michael Brown Training Ltd and writer of“My Job Isn’t Working!”

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