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The ability to collaborate with others is a must-have skill to be successful in work. It doesn’t matter if you’re a project manager, a self-employed editor or the chief financial officer, part of your success is probably going to hinge on how well you can work with colleagues.

Our work world is a complex system, with lots of inter-related people and parts that need to work together if we’re to get things done and deliver on our goals. Working easily and fluidly with others is simply how things get done in the 21st century.

What is collaboration?

Collaboration has become a catch-all phrase to encompass a whole range of activities and behaviours that relate to our ability to interact and work with other people. Fundamental to collaboration is the ability to establish and maintain constructive, genuine, healthy relationships. Some questions you might ask yourself to test your collaboration skills include:

  • Do you talk to colleagues on a regular basis, not just when you need something?
  • Do you know who your key stakeholders are for each of your major projects or initiatives?
  • Do you genuinely seek out the input and perspective of knowledgeable people when making plans?
  • Do you think about who will be affected by your actions and decisions, and do you communicate with them in advance?
  • Do you proactively offer up information or insight that can help other people be successful?

Why is collaboration so hard?

The reason I know collaboration is hard is because it’s on the development plans of many of my clients.

At work, we typically get rewarded for getting things done. Collaboration can slow this down – getting others’ input, incorporating others’ ideas, communicating regularly all take time.

And then there is our natural egocentric nature, the belief we know best and have the right answers.

Effective collaboration also means we have to trust other people. We have to trust they will be honest with us, that they will use our input with integrity, that they won’t take credit for our ideas.

The work environment is competitive by nature – not everyone will get promoted or rewarded. At times, collaboration seems an awful lot like putting ourselves out there to help other people be successful when what we really want is to ensure we are successful.

Radical ideas for better collaboration

I recently read the book Real Love, Sharon Salzberg’s guide to applying Buddhist philosophy in order to experience greater love and acceptance of oneself and others. It struck me how applicable many of the key principles are to collaboration in the workplace. To be truly successful at collaborating requires more than just switching up a few habits. I believe it requires a different – radically different – mindset.

  • Pursue excellence, not perfection. Striving for perfection ties us up in knots. It escalates our need for control, which causes us to become egocentric and insular. That’s bad for collaboration. Pursuing excellence opens us up to the possibility that someone other than ourselves may have something to contribute, may be better at something than we are, may know more than we do. To achieve excellence requires us to look beyond ourselves.
  • Resist judging others. Our brains are wired for analysis and judgment. We make up stories about other people to explain who they are and what we can expect from them. Sometimes we make judgments about who’s worth talking to, who’s worth listening to. The truth is, we never really know where the next good idea will come from, what conversation will spark an idea, who will offer up a critical piece of information. When we suppress our judgment of others, we can be more open, more curious and more receptive to what others have to offer.
  • Be curious. When you consult with your partners at work, are you really interested in what they have to say? Do you really understand their concerns and challenges? Are you checking your email while they’re talking to you on the phone? Superficial interest doesn’t lead to insights that can help you do your job better. Effective collaboration requires relationships, and those take real sympathy and compassion to build. Curiosity is an important pathway that leads to understanding.
  • Practice kindness. Now there’s a word that’s rarely used when we talk about work. Pause and reflect on a time when someone was particularly kind to you. How did you feel? How did it make you feel about that person? Kindness is an act performed without the expectation of reciprocity. But isn’t collaboration about relationship reciprocity? Yes. And there’s a very good chance that kindness begets kindness, creating a virtuous cycle that leads to deeper and more meaningful relationships – the kind of relationships we envy when we see them. And we could use a lot more kindness in the world, including at work.
  • Accept help. While we’re often happy, even eager, to lend a hand when asked, too often we think of asking for help as a sign of our own weakness. We’re afraid it will signal a lack of competence or confidence. Give and take is an important part of creating the equilibrium required for constructive collaboration. In the same way we hope our partners will reach out and ask for our advice, opinion and support, we need to do likewise. Relationships are enhanced when we’re able to ask for and accept help. Collaboration is, after all, a team sport – everyone needs to participate.

The ability to collaborate effectively puts the inter-related people and parts of the 21st century workplace dynamic in positive motion.

Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with advice and talent management solutions.


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