Cultivating Effective Collaboration

If the thought of collaboration induces eye rolls, exhausted sighs, and unapologetic grumbling within your team, it may be time for a reset. Despite knowing that working together helps us to leverage each other’s strengths for a larger good, the mere mention of group work can conjure up visions of endless meetings and send blood pressure soaring.

Cultivating effective collaboration among colleagues is a process.

And good leaders know it requires a cumulative effect. It’s not a one-time thing or a goal to be reached. Rather, it’s a series of small actions, done consistently, that create the conditions for cooperation, reliability, and inspiration.

Good leaders know this. Good leaders practice this.

Effective collaboration can be wildly productive. It can spark inspiration and creativity within a team. And the feeling of forward motion and sustained momentum can be exhilarating.

But what about collaboration burnout? There’s been much written about it and I get it. One hundred percent. I’ve been there. I’ve suffered through it. And I understand the inclination to resist it.

But I would argue that what is often described as collaboration burnout or overload was never really collaboration in the first place.

What Collaboration Is (And Isn’t)

Collaboration, at its core, is the act of working together. In its purest form, it is an equitable distribution of tasks among the members of a team, all of whom share a deep responsibility and commitment to the goals and to each other.

Effective collaboration is often marked by periods of sustained effort and hard work, offset by the ability to successfully shift responsibility to another team member without losing momentum. Effort and ease. Persistence and pause.

As a project progresses, responsibilities shift seamlessly across team members as the need for their expertise ebbs and flows. There is a sense of shared effort and expectation that is predictable, comfortable, and strengthens the very foundation on which the team is built.

That’s the ideal version of collaboration and one I’ve been lucky to experience now and again.

Most recently, I led a project for a national non-profit. The project scope was vague and unruly. The timeline was almost comically short (and right smack in the middle of the winter holiday season). And my team of three all had full-time jobs and families to balance alongside this project.

Easy peasy, right?

The three of us decided early on how we would tackle the project, choosing to work mostly asynchronously, with a handful of super productive meetings peppered in between. We dealt with plenty of uncertainty, a bit of overwhelm, and healthy sprinkling of “what did we sign up for?”

Underlying all of that was a trust in each other to deliver on our promises and support each other whenever and however we could. And, because of that earnest commitment to each other, we were able to deliver a final product that was on target and on time. To date, it is one of my favorite projects, I can’t wait to work with those folks again, and it’s an example I routinely use for how to do collaboration right.

But that project was done recently and benefitted from lessons learned in a thousand bad meetings. Lessons learned from collaborative experiences that left me feeling underwhelmed and overworked.

The Curse of Competence

Where collaboration goes off the rails, heading toward burnout, is when assumptions and avoidance sub in for attentiveness and accountability. That’s about the time when the Curse of Competence begins to take root.

A project gets off to a good start. Team focus slowly begins to drift toward other priorities, leaving crucial tasks hanging in the balance. And before long, the collaborative balance tips. Things are getting done, but at a cost.

The Curse of Competence is when a team member takes on an inordinate amount of work in order to ensure goals are achieved and deliverables met. Sometimes referred to as the passion tax, their willingness to step in is often a reflection of their dedication to the mission and goals (along with some underlying beliefs about their own value), resulting in a workload that far outweighs their counterparts.

When accountability and transparency are lacking, the Curse of Competence grows stronger. More and more tasks are shifted to one person on the team because “they’re just so good at it” or “they always seem to know what to do.”

And so the gaps get filled. Tasks are completed and deliverables met, but at the expense of certain team members and the overall foundation of the team itself.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can cultivate better collaboration by planting a few key seeds.

The Seeds of Collaboration

My career has centered around people and project management for over 20 years. And that experience has taught me that there are a few essential seeds that must be planted and nurtured on every team in order to cultivate healthy collaboration.

Trust: It’s the cornerstone of every great team. Each and every person has talents and expertise they bring to a project, both the obvious ones they were hired for and the innate ones that make them incredible people to have in your orbit. It must be a core expectation, shared among everyone, that team members can rely on each other to deliver on their promises and pitch in as needed to keep moving the project forward. Without trust, there is no connective tissue and, as a result, the team will always function at a deficit.

Empathy: Trust lays the groundwork for team members to give each other the benefit of the doubt; the sense of placing yourself in someone else’s shoes for a bit. This is essential to helping teams weather the rough patches that are unavoidable in a project. Someone will have a catastrophe. Someone will have to pinch hit. This is real life, after all. But when team members are accustomed to relying on each other and encounter behavior that is out of character, the resulting instinct is to understand rather than blame and come together rather than distancing themselves.

Accountability: Trust plus empathy equals prime conditions for compassionate accountability. When a team is willing to engage in honest evaluation, they can be objective about what went wrong, along with what went right, and everything in between. There’s no shame or retribution in acknowledging when a deliverable falls short which opens the door to candid conversations that genuinely aim to improve rather than indict. And it results in useful dialogue that recognizes both our humanity and the responsibilities we have to each other.

Tending the Team

Collaboration is a true superpower. When done well, it brings out the best in each of us, creating something far better than any one of us could have accomplished alone.

Creating a culture of compassionate accountability where we can acknowledge shortcomings and work alongside each other to seek solutions, strengthens the fabric of our teams. It nurtures professional growth – individually and collectively – by openly practicing a better way to lean on each other so we can more effectively lean in toward our shared goals.

Check out my new book Start With Better Meetings. Learn tactics for incorporating compassionate accountability into your meeting culture so you can keep cultivating effective collaboration in your teams.