by Christy Pruitt-Haynes
For most of us, our first job was working for ourselves. From lemonade stands to checking a neighbor’s mail when they are out of town, most of us started as entrepreneurs. The skills you learn when you are self-employed build character, determination and resilience — all skills that will serve you well.
Unfortunately, they don’t tend to make us the best team communicators and collaborators. Fast forward to our first “real job,” and we are thrown into a department, team or organization where we are expected to know how to work together. The leap from strong individual contributor to effective collaborator can be a difficult one to make. Organizations that are able to develop that skill in their work force, and foster a collaborative team environment, are well on their way to achieving excellence.
We’ve discussed the importance of an understood, accepted and supported mission statement and culture, but if team members aren’t able to work together, those things won’t matter. Working toward a common goal is great, but working together toward a common goal is far better. So, what is true collaboration, and how can an organization encourage it?
Collaboration starts with communication. When employees are able (and encouraged) to talk to each other, regardless of their department or level, collaboration can begin. Have you ever worked in a company where you were only allowed to talk to your boss? Were ideas that involved multiple departments required to run through certain people only? If you answered yes to any of those questions, then you likely know some of the downsides to not working in a collaborative environment. But how do those factors affect organizational excellence and success?
Part of being excellent means achieving both mission statement and financial success. If employees spend time dodging the “organizational land mines” instead of working together toward a solution, valuable production time is lost. If a team member sees a problem and has a viable solution, but isn’t at liberty to discuss that solution with anyone, a prime opportunity to resolve a problem has been missed. If internal competitiveness prevents the flow of ideas and resources, employees will focus on competing with each other instead of working together to compete against your external competitors.
It is essential to understand that collaboration is necessary. But how can an organization foster it?
- Make it company policy to encourage ideas from everyone. Don’t just invite team members to sit at the table; welcome, solicit and embrace their original concepts and ongoing feedback.
- Create multi-functional work teams to brainstorm opportunities or new directions.
- Implement a culture of teamwork that includes the idea that it doesn’t matter who the answer comes from, as long as we get it (and go a step further to create team and organization-wide bonuses in lieu of individual bonuses).
- Encourage horizontal, vertical and diagonal communication so everyone knows they can work with all departments and levels without losing ground or jeopardizing their employee evaluations or prospects for a future promotion.
One organization I worked with seemed to master the concept of true collaboration. It encouraged all employees to only use their first name (the barrier created by asking to be called “Mr. Jones” or “Mrs. Smith” when they could call you “Joe” or “Sally” impedes collaboration). It had occasional departmental meetings but encouraged work team meetings that involved all internal stakeholders that touched a project or product (the SVP of Marketing learned a lot from the Finance Coordinator, and vice versa).
Most importantly, they actively worked to push decisions down to the lowest level of the organization possible. If a customer service rep had to deal with customer complaints, then they were the ones who recommended product changes to the development team because they had firsthand knowledge of the issues.
We’ve all heard that two heads are better than one. That’s true, but only if both heads are talking and given an equal voice. The goal of teamwork and collaboration isn’t to think alike, but to think together. When an organization masters the practice of maximizing the brain power of ALL of its human capital, it becomes an unstoppable force with seemingly endless ideas, answers and resources.
Please share some of your experiences with collaboration and how it contributed to an organization excelling (or how the absence of it contributed to an ineffective organization or negative consequences).
Christy M. Pruitt-Haynes, SPHR, founder of CORE Consulting, is a facilitator, trainer, coach, catalyst, speaker and an expert in Human Resources and Organizational Development. A consultant and strategic partner with businesses, major corporations, universities, community groups, charitable organizations and independent professionals, she earned her Master of Science (M.S.) degree in Human Resources Development and holds a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree in Personnel and Labor Relations.
Find Christy on LinkedIn and Twitter @ChristysIdeas, or contact her at Christy@COREConsultingOnline.