How to Overcome Barriers for Successful Collaboration in the Workplace

Today's world is an individual world. Experts, mentors, teachers, and even parents tell their children, as they are growing up, they had better look out for themselves, because no one else will care for you in life. When you apply for a job, you apply as an individual. Many awards are for individual efforts. School grades and college applications are for individuals. When trying to make an important decision you are told by everyone, "It's your decision, do what is best for you." A successful person is an individual who sets personal goals and achieves them. Yes, we live in an individual me-first society.

Competitive work environments discourage collaboration. Even professional team sports often highlight personal achievement over team records. Superstars are praised, lauded, given preferential treatment, and are idols for many youngsters, but they would be nothing without their team. In the workplace, the individual who excels in the department is given awards, praise, and bonuses, while the administrative assistant who actually made the calls, sent out the proposal letters, ensured the go-getter made the appointments, and worked late formatting contracts is overlooked.

As you can see, if everyone relied solely on themselves, they would never get anywhere in life. Life is too complicated for one individual to have all the answers, to be capable of handling all needed work assignments, to make perfect decisions every time, with no input from anyone, and fix everything that breaks. Even Superman needed a helping hand on occasion. People rely on collaboration – gleaning from others' knowledge, so they do not have to "re-invent the wheel" or make the same mistakes.

Despite the reliance on others for assistance, when it comes to organized, or "forced," collaboration within an organization, many people are reluctant, if not downright resistant, to this forum. People treat it as "another appointment I must squeeze into my already crammed schedule." People do not trust their co-workers and are afraid their contributions to an organized collaboration project will be overlooked, or the credit will go to the boss's "golden child."

Collaboration suffers when the workplace is competitive and leadership does not create an environment for sharing goals. Research has proven that collaboration and a willingness to cooperate within a work environment strengthens a business by encouraging innovation and empowering the business to reach its goals. Knowledge and idea sharing enables workers to be more efficient and prosperous at their jobs, which, in turn, makes them a part of something larger than just themselves. Collaboration generates profits for a business.

The challenge is for leadership to create a culture of trust and sharing. Company picnics, social functions, and brainstorming events away from the workplace are good starters, but there need to be more collaborative tools within the workplace. One great tool many overlook is utilizing technology to create social media work sites, where individuals can share successes, ideas, ask for advice with a problem, offer tips, and even give encouragement. The platform allows people to involve other co-workers the individual might not have known, or would have never thought to ask a question of, in a normal setting. The social network also gets departments that are typically isolated from each other, working together on organizational goals.

At the same time, leadership should recognize collaboration efforts in staff meetings and awards ceremonies, and not just individual efforts. For an organization to collaborate, the culture, acceptance, and practice must begin at the top.

So now that we have an idea of the challenges involved with incorporating collaboration within the workplace, let's take a look at some of the barriers and ways to punch holes in them to allow collaborative efforts to flow freely within an organization.

Lack of Trust – No Respect

People do not go to work because they cannot wait to get there and begin working each and every day. Sure, there are times where people look forward to getting out of the house and hanging out at work with their friends – but if asked, most people would run out the door if handed a million dollars. People work because they have bills to pay. People show up at the office because they like to eat. People fight the morning traffic to get to the office because they need the medical insurance and other benefits. Realizing this, leadership should then come to the conclusion their workers are protective of their jobs and do not want a co-worker to steal their horn before they can toot their own success – they want the bragging rights for solving a problem or finishing an awesome project – not their co-worker. They want to look good to the boss so they might get the next promotion and be labeled as indispensable if downsizing ever should occur.

So for collaboration to occur there must be some trust and respect among co-workers. This only happens if there is collaboration at the top. Look at J.C. Penny and Ron Johnson, hailed as the savior for the once pitiful and pathetic retailer on the brink of anonymity in today's hip culture. In 2011 the retailer brought in Johnson, who had turned Target and Apple around. They were looking for major cosmetic surgery to repair their outdated and dowdy brand and Johnson was their lead surgeon. He immediately began cutting into their programs. He clipped their coupon deals and slashed their sales prices. He then forbade the word "sale" and instituted everyday low prices. He forgot to ask the customers what they wanted. He did not seek advice from people who knew the ins and outs of the brand. He did not build trust and he did not develop a collaborative effort. His vision was his own and it was not a team effort.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Collaboration Skills course?

It stunk. His vision was blurred and his plans bombed. Sales plummeted and the stores became ghost towns. Loyal customers complained and refused to shop, since there were no sales and no bargains to hunt down. Johnson said he wanted a place that was fun, hip, and where customers would want to hang out, and all they did was leave him hung out to dry. Seventeen months after he barged through the doors, ready to take the bull by the horns, he was bulldozed out the door and left standing at the curb.

For the most part, leadership did not trust Johnson's vision. Investors did not trust his direction or ideas and never felt a part of it. Customers totally rejected his ideas and lost respect for their store. There was a cultural divide between Johnson, the company, and the customers.

Collaboration needs mutual trust, and there must be respect among everyone involved. The causes for the divide may be many, but there is one underlying truth in every situation – there was no connection between leadership and the rest of the organization. For collaboration to have a chance, leadership must communicate their vision, plans, ideas, and values. Leadership must create a two-way highway of communication. They must listen to their people and ask their opinion. They must openly discuss their ideas and invite feedback. They must incorporate the best of the ideas heard, so everyone believes leadership's vision is their vision. The leadership must create buy-in from everyone, so an environment of collaboration can be achieved. Leadership must address an individual's fears and let them know the vision cannot be accomplished on the shoulders of one person -- but with a team effort, goals will be exceeded.

Kingdom Building – Individual Incentive Programs

With today's fast-paced, multi-faceted, globally influenced economy, it takes a diverse group of talented people within an organization to maintain any form of an edge on the competition. The problem facing leadership is the fact that many mid-level supervisors build their own self-centered kingdoms for job security. They look after No. 1, to the detriment of the organization. And because the people linked to these personal kingdoms realize what their bosses are doing, they focus their attention on the individual incentive programs offered through the organization, instead of looking at organizational goals and doing what is best for the overall institution. This creates a form of the "See no, Hear no, Speak no," monkey syndrome. What the organization becomes is a "See me, Hear me, Speak to no one," culture. This leaves little to no room for organizational excellence, and it leaves the institution weak and vulnerable for a takeover.

To tear down the kingdoms, and to refocus the "I" to a 20-20 vision focused on the organizational goals, takes a dynamic leader fixated on building a great team. The leader must be able to unite a group of talented and unlikely individuals into a unified team. The best way for the leader to accomplish the seemingly unaccomplishable is by utilizing military basic training techniques. Create team challenges that are impossible for any individual within the group to accomplish, and make the end result a team all-or-nothing reward system. Challenges found in military basic training include teaching the recruits there are big enemies out there and it takes a complete fighting force to keep them at bay. They tackle high-profile type projects together – all cross the finish line, or they all do it again type scenarios. Recruits feel the pressure as a unit, as they attempt to finish a project under tight time constraints and difficult odds. While they work on all these various projects, they are learning to be a team. At the end of basic training, they realize they are a part of something larger than themselves, and they have learned to trust their leaders and depend on their uniformed compatriots to be a success.

The military offers its service members both individual and unit or team awards. Both are recognized which creates an environment for individual and unit excellence. In the business and private sector, for this environment to exist, there are six avenues that a leader must explore to build a cohesive and dynamic functioning team:

  • He first must know himself and how he functions as a leader; he must know his own strengths and weaknesses and be willing to make the appropriate changes.

  • A leader must know the people -- their culture, strengths and weaknesses, talents, values – and must be willing to embrace their differences, and see those differences as a positive and valuable item that creates group strength.

  • He must know how to communicate. The leader must clearly outline roles, responsibilities and all these must be interlinked and dependent on each other for there to be a team environment where collaboration can flourish; don't be afraid to challenge the group to shoot for a goal slightly out of their reach.

  • Leadership must give constant feedback both positive and negative, but always lift up before offering CONSTRUCTIVE criticisms; never bash a team's efforts, since that will send the group scurrying to build survival walls around themselves as individuals. Take the time, as the leader, to learn from the group, while giving feedback.

  • Hand out the accolades and reward success; people love recognition and want to feel they made a difference. Reward both individual and group successes.

  • Take the time to "smell the roses" and have a group celebration for success. Take time to let everyone share the "war stories" and pat each other on the back; encourage it, and as the leader, be the loudest cheerleader.

Lack of understanding

One of the greatest misunderstandings within organizations is where the institution is going and its road map to success. The misunderstanding comes into play with the people responsible for getting the organization to its final destination – leadership -- never gave them a clear map to follow. One of the common sayings found, especially within large organizations, is "Communication here is underwhelming," or "It fascinates me how fast a juicy tidbit can get through the door leading upstairs, but needed information is never given a pass-key."

Rumors and gossip flow in an organization where true and excellent communication is stifled by leadership. One of the truths in the business world is "knowledge is power." In a "me-first" survival environment, knowledge is withheld for so-called leaders to feel empowered. What this does is create an ambiance of confusion, lack of focus, and ultimately mistrust within the organization.

To combat these issues, and have everyone heading in the right direction, there must be information flow. Goals, policies, directives, and daily instructions must be passed down to everyone, so the group will know where they are going, why they are heading there, how they will get there, and what their role is in making this happen. Armed with this information, workers are compelled to do their part and help others achieve their individual goals. What you, as the leader, will begin building is team collaboration.

So clear the air of confusion, gossip, and rumors – communicate clearly, concisely, and colorfully, so everyone will remember what they were told, how they were told to do it and can follow the road map they were given to success.