“The Beatles illustrate what can happen when you group the right people together” (Ron Friedman, Psychology Today, 2014). Today, across industries and geographies, there is a sense that everyone gains from working in teams, and that more often than not, one plus one will equal three.

There is no doubt that collaboration can strengthen a business. Collaboration between different parts of an organisation or between individuals with diverse responsibilities and talents can give rise to more effective processes, solve complex business challenges and even create new products.

Now that technology enables people to be connected regardless of their physical location, it should be easier to meet those business goals that require people to work together in a collaborative way. However, we find that resistance to collaboration is something that requires a much more personal touch.

Collaboration is a Choice

Business leaders can see the benefits of their people shifting from working individually or in silos to sharing information, making decisions together and taking collective responsibility for both failure and success, but in the end, the individual is the one who needs to decide to collaborate.

Collaboration is not easy and there are different reasons why people resist it. Unless it’s an inherent part of our workflow, it requires extra effort and extra time, which is something many individuals often lack. People might already be under a lot of pressure and can’t see how they’ll be able to create the space or time to incorporate someone else into their daily schedule.

Resistance can also surface when high-performing individuals feel uncomfortable stepping outside their own area of specialisation or when they have fully formed work habits which are difficult to change. Research by Linda Gratton and Tamara J Erickson, for example, found that the higher the proportion of experts in a team, the more likely the team would disintegrate through conflict. (Source: L. Gratton and T. J. Erickson. “Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams”. Harvard Business Review Nov 2007.)

We also can’t ignore interpersonal dynamics. While colleagues may be able to get along when working independently from each other, the art of collaboration, which requires a give and take, might be difficult to master.

Finally, collaborations are most effective when colleagues complement rather than replicate one another’s capabilities… Skill duplication can lead to competition for power.

Ultimately, to collaborate is a choice. Part of our job as leaders is to make collaboration the most attractive option for our people. But how?

Understanding the Individual

Laying the grounds for successful collaboration takes time. Time to get to know our team members, what makes them tick, their career aspirations, their long-term plans. What is it they will get out of working closely with others? What is it they’re afraid of having to give up?

Take “Peter”, a senior manager working with 5 direct reports. Their jobs required highly specialised knowledge but in order to exceed expectations, they needed to work closely with each other, making decisions together and sharing information regularly to inform each others’ work.

Unfortunately, “Leo” resisted this way of working. He was a financially oriented individual who wanted to work on his own. He resisted sharing information. He felt like he didn’t have the time to support the work of others. He felt like the quality of his work would deteriorate if he stepped outside his area of expertise.

As Peter took the time to understand Leo’s resistance, he realised that also, deep down, Leo didn’t respect most of his colleagues. However, he did hold “Lisa” in high regard. It therefore seemed like a good idea to set up a scenario where Lisa could collaborate with Leo, so that he could start seeing the benefits of adapting his working style.

As Peter continued to monitor Leo’s performance through coaching conversations, he noticed that Leo was afraid that his work would go unrecognised if he presented his work as part of a team. So Peter made sure that he recognised Leo’s individual contribution as well as the results being achieved by the team.

With time, Leo was able to see that forming part of collaborative relationships meant that he had more access to information and personal networks which, in turn, allowed him to have more control over his work and perform at a higher standard.

When we ask people to collaborate, we need to recognise that we are asking them to restructure the way they work. We might even be asking them to change the way in which they see themselves as professionals. But if we take the time to lay down the foundations that will help them see what’s in it for them, they will chose themselves to step into the collaborative space.

Further relevant reading: