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Here’s A Latent Threat To Collaboration, And The Fix For It!

Here’s A Latent Threat To Collaboration, And The Fix For It!

Technology has transformed how we collaborate today, so much so that it’s hard to think of collaboration outside of digital tools. I do recall a time, however, when the word had a different lustre to it. Indeed I learned of it years ago upon noticing that a musical contribution involving multiple artists was called a collaboration – still true today. It was clear to me then – as it is now – that collaboration is what happens when two or more people work together. By doing so, the work they produce has the benefit of their shared talents and abilities. 

The best contributions are always the product of collaborative efforts. One person can have a great idea, but it takes more than one person to turn it into an inspired product or service – something that touches and impacts lives. The old adage, two heads are better than one, captures this truth succinctly. But all too often, the benefits of collaboration are elusive, even when the case for it is clear. Like many great ideas, it doesn’t always fly. The reason for this has much to do with the very nature of collaborative work.

When people collaborate, there’s a seismic shift in the work dynamic. It involves giving up something for the greater good; autonomy. But making the switch from work autonomy to shared work is not as easy as it seems. Collaboration thrusts us into proximity to our colleagues, accentuating our differences in ways that are hard to ignore. Throw power and status variations into the mix and we have the makings of a political game. When collaborating, it’s tempting to avoid the frictions and tensions that stem from individual differences. In this context, by sharing a contrarian viewpoint, one risks alienation. Nobody wants this. To understand just how strong this need to fit in is, let’s consider the science.

In 1951, psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a study showing how eagerly people conform in group settings. The study asked subjects to make a simple visual observation. Remarkably, 75% of subjects gave at least one incorrect answer after hearing other group members – who were actors in the experiment with detailed instructions on how to respond in each trial – give the same incorrect answer. The Asch conformity test shows how strong the temptation to conform can be. So strong that people are willing to contradict their own senses. 

This lesson has implications for how we collaborate. The urge to conform and fit in is a strong motivator. This is not an objectively bad idea per se. But at the extreme, it’s harmful. It can cause individuals to forgo their better judgments in favour of belonging. When this happens, it stifles collaboration by keeping (potentially game-changing) contributions at bay. In a yes yes culture, thought diversity doesn’t flourish, preempting any innovations that could have been – a high price to pay for conformance and agreeableness. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way. 

There’s another type of culture where people can agree to disagree, even while working closely together. It is the antithesis of a yes yes culture. Here differences are not only welcomed but also encouraged. This is the true essence of collaboration – where people see the value (and opportunity) in other people’s perspectives. But such a culture doesn’t happen by accident or luck. It’s a product of intentional design. 

As Simon Sinek famously puts it:

The real job of a leader is not about being in charge, it’s about taking care of those in our charge.

Leaders create psychologically safe spaces that enable everyone else to feel belonging. Once this baseline need is satisfied, the motivation to behave in ways that safeguard belonging falls away. The focus naturally shifts to doing meaningful work. Collaborators don’t see themselves as competitors – there are no winners or losers when everyone is on the same team. They share a purpose that’s bigger than any one of them. 

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Admittedly, it takes some psychological flexibility to work through professional differences and produce great work. Professionals can and do bring a healthy dose of humanity and maturity to their collaborative endeavours, commendably so. But this sort of thinking doesn’t catch on where the cultural momentum for it is lacking. 


Collaborative efforts, and the technologies that extend their reach, work best at bringing individual talents together when they’re not working against the tide of culture. The right culture creates belonging for everyone, removing fears that can stifle shared work. In this sense, it creates an environment in which collaborators see their work in a new light. They see it as an opportunity to reach for (and achieve) more. More purposeful, meaningful work. Shared efforts naturally thrive amidst shared pursuits. 

The most consequential factor in any culture is leadership. Indeed culture is widely viewed as the barometer for leadership. To unleash talent, leaders need to ensure that everyone on the team feels a sense of belonging. Failing this, some might feel like they’re merely passing through – en route to a better place where they actually belong. They’ll do what they can to fit in while they’re here. 

Leaders who understand this will go the extra mile to ensure that the right message is verbalised and actualised. And the organisations they lead will continue winning in the race, both to acquire and unleash talent.

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