Don’t let fear get it the way of effective collaboration.
Fear can drive people apart and the charged atmosphere driven by concerns about COVID-19 can create the conditions for unease, trepidation or apprehension. We’re facing new challenges in terms of increased remote work and ways of working that may be shifting. Now more than ever, it’s important to come together, find common ground and work together effectively.
We know how critical collaboration is to business success. Things have become so complex that none of us is as smart as all of us, and it is a rare individual who can get things done alone. But we live in a competitive landscape driven by limited resources and levels of heightened anxiety. Competition between colleagues can get in the way of team success. So, how can you foster cooperation* between people rather than a dog-eat-dog culture where only a limited number of people win?
Research suggests feedback may be one of the keys, and there are others as well.
A recent study by the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and the IESE Business School in Barcelona put people in cooperative and competitive situations and then gave them different kinds of feedback. Perhaps, the most striking finding was when people received feedback that ranked them among other players, they behaved selfishly in both the competitive and the cooperative settings. But when people received feedback about the performance of the group, they behaved cooperatively and enhanced their success. The message for business: provide people with feedback about their success as a team and they will strive together to succeed.
So, feedback is a powerful part of a recipe for successful collaboration and cooperation, but what else matters? Here are five ways to foster cooperation:
First, ensure goals are clear. You’ll need a clear set of group goals, clear individual goals and alignment between the two. If people have individual goals which are detached from success as a group, cooperation won’t be seen as a clear requirement. Or worse, if individual goals work against group goals, people will be disincented to collaborate. The alternative is to have clear individual expectations that align with group goals. Perhaps each claims adjuster has a goal for the number of claims she must process and this ladders up to a group goal. Or perhaps each docent has a goal for positive customer reviews which ladders up to the overall rating the attraction receives. Ensure alignment and ensure group members are responsible for mutual goals.
Appreciate individuals but not to the detriment of the group. I’ve previously written about why it is better not to make heroes out of team members. Instead, balance the recognition you provide to individuals with that you provide to the group. Too much focus on any one member can be demotivating to others.
Foster team relationships. Northwestern University research found when teams had prior success—and the trust, chemistry and bonds that came along with it—they tended to parlay that into future accomplishments. Find ways to build team relationships through tasks. Given strategies for “social distancing” lately, you may not be able to take time for traditional team building. You may have to forgo axe-throwing or escape room-ing to build personal ties, but never underestimate the greater power of working through a challenge and succeeding together. Meeting or exceeding a goal is a compelling way teams can build appreciation for each other’s skills and create a sense of shared accomplishment.
Ensure the competition is outside your team. Competition within groups—for status, power or recognition—can tear teams apart and make it tough to succeed. But when competition is outside of the organization, it can motivate groups. The “common enemy” phenomenon is well-known in the study of teams—suggesting people tend to bond together to survive and thrive when they perceive a common barrier or adversary. Recent research by the University of British Columbia reinforced this knowledge. It is good for business when teams can work together to overcome a foe or succeed in the marketplace against competitors.
Provide plenty of team recognition and celebrate success. When the team wins, ensure they are recognized. Limelight and positive kudos for a job well done help a team bond. The backslapping, high-fives and recognition of all the great work that went into the effort are good for individuals and the team as a whole.
And, of course, remember where this article began, provide feedback that avoids ranking individuals against each other, and instead focuses on the performance of the group.
Our current situation—driven by COVID-19—has created conditions which could separate rather than unite or inspire distance rather than bonding. But cooperation and collaboration are perhaps more important than ever. Solid practices can encourage these and the success they produce. Provide the right kind of feedback, ensure goals are clear, avoid creating heroes, build team relationships, ensure the competition stays outside of the team and celebrate victories. These actions will put you solidly on the path toward the best-possible collaboration, cooperation and success in your career.
*In purist sociological terms, collaboration and cooperation are different concepts. Collaboration comes from the root “work together” and is typically defined as working together to achieve a common goal shared by the group. Cooperation comes from the Latin meaning “work with” and is typically defined as helping people to achieve separate goals rather than shared goals. For the purposes of this article, I’m using the terms interchangeably to mean team members working together for goals they share in alignment as individuals and together as groups.