The Conundrum of Collaboration


A lot of organizations have a publicly stated value or desire about getting better at collaboration. Breaking down the silos, working better together, being more inclusive, seeking more diverse opinions – all are examples of how companies go about articulating what they mean by collaboration.

Research is filled with examples of how collaboration is the right model for spurring innovation and new growth with today’s workers. Even if the research is disregarded, common sense and logic point to the value of collaboration. In a world where headcount constantly decreases yet objectives continue to rise, people must form new relationships and build alliances with others outside their own department in order to be successful.

There are some wonderful examples of how collaboration has produced some terrific new products and contributions to the bottom line. The August 2004 issue of Fortune featured some of the cross-organizational innovations occurring at P&G, and how they were contributing to the company’s strong financial performance at the time. One of those that caused me to smile was the product called Eukanuba Dental Defense.

Eukanuba is a top quality food for dogs, produced by the Iams Company, now part of P&G. The dental defense piece is housed in the oral care part of the company, with well-known brands like Crest, which have been staples in households for years. At first glance, combining the seemingly disparate functions of pet food and personal dental care might not appear to be a formula destined for immediate success. Think about it, would there really be a market for dog food flavored toothpaste? But fortunately the P&G folks looked at it differently and produced a product that now provides the much-needed tarter control for dogs. (Dog owners will tell you what a pain it is to get their dogs to floss!) The collaboration between the two organizations produced a new product that continues to improve the overall health of dogs, while providing a new source of income for P&G.

Are you actively looking for non-obvious relationships across your organization as a means of creating new profit-generating products or services? I would bet you are certainly talking about it, but are you really following through?

Hindering Collaboration

A lot of organizations struggle with making cross-organizational collaboration a standard way of doing things. So, with clear research, and the added validity of common sense, what keeps people stuck in their boundaries and unable to break free to collaborate? What do you think the major reasons are in your company?

We have found several. To begin with, many organizations are not built around a model that fosters collaboration. The people they recruit and hire are selected based on previous accomplishments, as well as attributes such as self-drive, competitive spirit, and ambition to get ahead. There may not be much discussion about or investigation into the candidate’s collaboration history and capabilities.

Along with that, an organization’s pay and incentive systems seldom support collaboration. In many cases, people feel like they might even lose financially by collaborating, as someone else will reap the lion’s share of the reward (or incentive comp.). Think about this for a moment. Does the performance management system in your organization seek to measure (and compensate) people for what they do, or for ways they have collaborated? For the record, do you even know how to accurately measure a person’s impact as part of a collaborative effort?

Structure is another issue that thwarts collaboration. Despite what they say, some companies are still organized and invested in silos – lines of business or geographies, etc. Historically, people have seldom ventured very far outside their own areas, and as a result, there are no known, tried and true ways to do that today. Every attempt feels similar to traveling on unfamiliar roads without a map. And if your boss is from the “old school,” you are not likely going to get a great deal of support to look beyond your current walls.

There are also cultural barriers that hinder the process. Survival of the fittest means the person who accomplishes the most moves most rapidly upward. If an individual has to rely on too much help from others, she or he may not be viewed as having what it really takes to be a top leader. Think of it this way. You are one of two candidates being considered for a promotion into a higher position. You have always looked for opportunities to collaborate and have been part of many successful achievements. The other contender’s profile doesn’t focus much on collaboration. Instead it highlights a string of great accomplishments that this person has been directly responsible for throughout his or her career. From what you know about how promotions have been determined in your organization, would you feel like you are in the strongest position?

Some organizations are becoming much more credible in their stated desire to foster collaboration and are recognizing and rewarding those kinds of efforts visibly and frequently. Others are attempting to reap the benefits, but still seem to be assessing penalties for the associates who are trying to work in a more collaborative way.

The Number One Reason

Clearly there are things about an organization itself that impact collaboration efforts, but none of those are the number one reason that collaboration stalls. That reason is much more personal. It is self-interest. People frequently refuse to collaborate because they do not believe it is in their best interests to do so. And those organizational confines just discussed strengthen that argument.

In the workplace, people want to be treated fairly. And each person has his or her own personal scorecard for what that means. If you hear about another person receiving some undeserved credit and even a bit of an undeserved bonus for a project, you might shake your head, comment about that person’s luck (or political connections), and quickly move on. After all, it does seem to occur somewhat regularly, doesn’t it? But what happens if that undeserving person is a peer in your own group, who ends up making more than you, while contributing much less than you did? How does it feel now that you are more personally involved? Does it seem fair? Can you shake it off as easily? Does it make you want to go out and give your all the next time around?

People want to look good at work. They want to succeed. And because of the organizational issues mentioned earlier, success is often defined based on personal achievement, not cooperative effort. Therefore, collaboration is often perceived as having to give up something, or as a sacrifice for the benefit of others. And if an individual wants to come out on top, she or he will have to carefully think about how much sacrificing will be done.

Have you ever heard, thought or even said anything like the following:

  • I’ll help you get better positioned with this new customer, but now you owe me.
  • If I provide you with a couple of my key people for your project, my results will likely suffer and I will look bad.
  • Those people aren’t looking for partners. They are looking for more competent people to come in and do their work for them. Who hired them in the first place?
  • If everyone would just focus on his or her own responsibilities, instead of worrying about everyone else’s, we would be a lot better off around here.
  • How can I expect to get a top rating if my performance review shows I have had my hands in a lot of things, but have accomplished nothing of real substance that I can call my own? I’ll get labeled as a good solid B player or something similar, but I certainly won’t be seen as a rising star.

If you are guilty, don’t be too alarmed. In the real world, you have to be responsible for your own interests and well being.

What Can Be Done

If you are attempting to bring more life to collaboration in your organization, there are a couple of paths you can take. The first path is guided by the sage management principle – what is rewarded gets done. Here you can start to tackle some of the current organizational processes and systems so they will more closely and directly support collaboration efforts. When a collaborative effort is successful for the company, you need to find ways to more equitably recognize and reward everyone who contributed. If a group of collaborators was paid 5% of the first year sales of a new product, might that stimulate some new beliefs about branching out? What if 15% of one’s annual pay was based on measurable and verifiable examples of collaborating? Would that potentially inspire people to act differently? Remember, what gets rewarded is often what gets done.

What do you think about the strategy of setting people’s goals so high that they will be forced to collaborate in order to make them? That is, your collaboration efforts will be rewarded by being able to keep your job! A lot of organizations have used this approach. It does emphasize the importance of collaborating and there is a direct consequence for those who don’t play along. Upon reflection, do you believe this is an effective way to reward people for collaborating? Will this strategy lead to greater, more productive collaborative efforts?

The problem is this strategy is too often based on the assumption that people obviously know how to collaborate, they just are not doing it enough. That may not be a wise assumption. Collaboration requires solid, trusting relationships, where all parties benefit. Developing and sustaining these kinds of relationships requires both skill and work. Although many people might think they already have a well honed, inborn capability for relationships, they actually find they are not so good at them after all. They realize they have to learn and get better at some things. And in an environment where goals are already beyond reach, how likely are people to want to devote precious time to development of a so-called “soft” skill like collaboration. And for those that do, does the company even offer the means – or the money – to make it happen?

When attempting to better align systems like pay and performance around collaboration, don’t forget to include education and development processes as well. If you want people to collaborate, you must equip them to succeed.

The other route you can take to bring out more collaboration is guided by a different principle than the one previously mentioned. Rather than focusing solely on that which is rewarded, this leadership principle reminds us that what is rewarding gets done. That means that people will engage in behavior that provides intrinsic benefits, such as joy, fulfillment or personal gratification. People will collaborate simply because they enjoy it. For them being an integral part of the team that successfully conquers Mt. Everest is reward enough, even if they were not one of the few ultimately selected for the final ascent to the summit. Pay, promotion or individual recognition opportunities are either less relevant – or icing on the cake.

Do not make the mistake of assuming that these folks are unusually noble or altruistic, and are always willing to forgo their own self-interests for the interests of the greater good. They may simply find that collaborating is a much better way for them to pursue and achieve their own goals. So along with your efforts geared toward organizational structures and systems, don’t forget to check in on your people’s personal values and aspirations as well. You may uncover some additional ways to inspire their commitment.

Implications for Leaders

There are a couple of key ideas for you to keep in the forefront as you go about building an environment based more on openness and collaboration, and less on rigid boundaries and separated efforts. First, you must remember that everyone pursues self-interest in his or her own individual way. One person’s criteria for determining personal success or fulfillment will not necessarily be identical to anyone else’s. As you attempt to expand the behaviors of collaboration around your organization, make sure you can describe the reasons for doing so in a variety of ways, so more of your people can find their own unique ways to buy in. The mantra, “collaboration is one of our corporate values, so just do it,” is not likely going to be enough to inspire everyone to want to get much better at it.

If people are either threatened by or just uncomfortable with the concept of collaboration, you will get some resistance. And sometimes that resistance is very hard to see. There are some who will appear very committed. By mouthing all the right words about collaboration’s importance and describing the number of things they are trying to do to demonstrate it, they will sound very convincing. At the same time, they may be acting no differently in their relationship with others. For people to become more collaborative, they will need to believe that overcoming their levels of resistance or discomfort will, in fact, better serve their own interests going forward.

Finally, you might want to do some deeper thinking about how you will deal with those who are very clear that their own personal wins are all that count. That is, they show no willingness at all to collaborate with others. For example, they will not share new prospective leads with team members. They will not share knowledge or experience that will help a colleague achieve success. Frankly, they won’t put forth much effort of any kind to help the team or the company as a whole. They act as if life is a zero sum game. For them to win (earn the most money, advance quicker, or whatever), everyone else must lose. And they play to win.

How will you handle this kind of situation? Would you deal with it differently if your non-collaborator is also your top producer – and you need this person’s proven “ability to deliver” to make your numbers – and your rather ambitious boss has made it very clear that she is counting on your numbers to ensure she makes hers (or heads might roll)? The answer is seldom as easy or clear-cut as you would like it to be. Self interest is often at play in a lot of ways. Yet, as a leader, you will have to confront and make tough decisions in circumstances just like this example.

Effective relationships with others always require some give and take, whether in a family setting or a collaborative work environment. Some level of sacrifice is usually part of the deal. In a perfect world, collaboration would be a win/win for everybody in every situation. The truth is, there will be situations when some people benefit more than others.

As a leader, one of the most difficult challenges you face in attempting to lead any kind of change is getting people to believe in the positive impacts of the change before they actually see it. Getting everyone to shift their prevailing mindsets and accompanying behaviors from a departmental or silo mentality to a cross-organizational collaborative outlook will be no different. Their internal voices of self-interest will likely be warning them to continue to take care of number one, or at least to wait and see. You will have to ensure that they see and experience immediate and very visible evidence about the ways collaborating is benefiting them. This will not be a one-time event, as you will have to find ways to continuously provide positive proof. You will also need to be willing to help others see and understand the consequences of not collaborating.

As people get more comfortable with and begin to more readily act in collaborative ways, they will discover that the fruits of their cooperative efforts produce more and more opportunities for everyone to win – themselves, their colleagues and the organization. Their self-interests will be served and they will have found a new avenue for achieving success.

Copyright 2005 International Leadership Associates, Steve C. Coats