As a leader, you likely consider yourself a skilled collaborator. It is, after all, your role to foster communication and use your skills to influence others to achieve the collective goals of your organisation.

But what would you say if you were told that often – consciously or subconsciously – we can be guilty of overestimating our contribution to collaboration? Or that the ‘Abilene Paradox’* sees collaborators collectively decide on an action that is counter to the preferential desired outcome because they feel their objections aren’t valuable enough and they subconsciously fear breaking group harmony?

The truth is that there is no one ‘good collaborator’. We are complex beings. How we trust in and empathise with others, our egos and our aspirations, and our vulnerabilities can all affect how we collaborate.

Collaboration is underpinned by complex social psychology, defined as the study of how people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours are influenced by the real, imagined or implied the presence of other individuals.

Nature versus nurture

“Humans are, by their nature, collaborative,” says David Hawkins, Operations Director at the Institute for Collaborative Working. “We are innately drawn towards tribes or teams and enjoy rewarding relationships – they breed innovation, opportunity and satisfaction.”

Elizabeth Stewart is Head of Executive Assessment & Development at Odgers Berndtson’s London practice. “Innately, we want to belong,” she adds.

“In some cases, the workplace replaces the ‘family’ – the first unit that tests collaboration.”

When it comes to organisational collaboration, however, can nature be improved by nurture? According to Stewart, collaboration is an important aspect of leadership development programmes and a key leadership competency in some of her work at Odgers Berndtson. Naturally, there are key ‘learned’ skills that aid collaboration, but Hawkins believes that a propensity for organisational processes and rules can, in fact, stifle our natural collaborative tendencies.

“Organisational structures, leadership styles, systems, processes and incentives – both positive and negative – can significantly influence our behaviours. In effect, collaboration is a trait that, if not fostered in the right way, can become suppressed.”

How then, do leaders become better collaborators? “Some individuals are natural collaborators,” says Stewart. “Educating average players on what ‘good’ looks like and tips on how to become better can help. Individuals that are learning agile – highly self-aware and committed to changing and growing – will build more capability in this area.”

What makes a good collaborator?

At ICW, Hawkins has been involved in a 2017 research project into the psychology of workplace collaboration to build a portfolio of character traits and ‘identify specific attributes key to collaborative aptitude’.

“There is no magic formula or psychometric model specific to a collaborator,” he explains. “However, one very strong key characteristic was strategic thinking: specifically, the ability to think beyond a given task and to consider the impact on others. Being open-minded, innovative, adaptable, communicative, open to sharing and empathetic are skills of a good collaborator, but strategic thinking provides a platform for those attributes to flourish.”

Interestingly, leadership appeared lower than the aforementioned in ICW’s psychological traits. It included an ability to engage, respect others’ views, avoid micromanagement and be the voice of reason.

“Confident, strong leaders are authentically able to make themselves vulnerable,” says Stewart. “Egocentric leaders are divorced from their true selves and find it more difficult to do so. At Odgers Berndtson we use the trust equation. It states that the level of trust between you and others is defined by the sum of your credibility, reliability and intimacy, divided by your self-orientation. To improve trust we must increase the first three and avoid being too self-orientated. It helps us identify to colleagues what traits are more important, and identify where they need to change.”

Bad collaborator

If indeed, our collaborative personality is innate, it stands to reason that there are attributes that constrain individuals from being effective collaborators too. “A bad collaborator may be self-orientated, short-sighted, and not open to change,” says Stewart. “Similarly, those that are overly competitive, arrogant or egocentric, passive-aggressive or victim-type personalities may find collaboration difficult.

“A lack of intellectual capacity affects the ability to work through more complex variables and absorb very different perspectives at pace. Lacking intellectual flexibility constrains strategic capabilities, and lack of critical reasoning means you may miss critical issues in decision-making.”

Rather than focus on innate characteristics, Hawkins points to external pressures hindering collaboration. “Factors like an individual or collective risk, career drivers, management and performance measures can cloud our attitudes to collaboration. There’s also what I refer to as ‘unconscious bias’, driven by preconditioning that the only way to succeed is through domination and fostered by the performance measures and incentives organisations have.”

Leaders are the key

To Hawkins, there is little doubt that, while our core collaborative skills are innate, the organisational culture in which we operate must allow them the freedom to collaborate. “Leaders are the key,” he says. “If supportive, they will have recognised the benefits and created an environment where people can develop.

“They should adopt processes and incentives that foster collaboration, but they must also ensure that the right behaviours are acknowledged and poor behaviours are not tolerated. Too often bad behaviour is acceptable if it delivers the bottom line.”

Stewart indicates that, while leaders must facilitate collaboration, each individual must be accountable for their role in that work. She says that it “moves each collaborator into an adult-to-adult relationship and requires each to contribute fully, irrespective of whether they are introvert or extrovert. Each has to step up to the plate, including calling it out when someone is dominating or someone is holding back for whatever reason.”

As Hawkins indicated, there is no magic formula that makes an effective collaborator. You are, in some parts, driven by nature – whether you are an introvert or an extrovert. As a leader, it is your role to foster collaboration in your organisation. It may be, however, that in order to do that you first need to understand yourself.

*The term was first introduced by management expert Jerry B Harvey in his 1974 article The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement.

Elizabeth Stewart

Elizabeth (Liz) has over 30 years as a business consultant, working for global professional services firms, and in the last 15 years focused on advising on Boards, CEOs, the C-Suite and their pipel...

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