February 28, 2020
Every CEO I’ve worked with wishes there was more collaboration in their organization. At the same time, many of their managers complain that they are overwhelmed with poorly planned meetings, ineffective group events and a never-ending stream of emails asking for information and assistance. Ideally, organizations exist so that synergy can occur across different functions and divisions, but too often, synergy is replaced with dysfunction.
Being effective at collaboration is a highly valued skill that creates a significant positive impact as a leader. To demonstrate that impact, my colleague Jack Zenger and I gathered 360-degree assessment data on 111,778 leaders and looked at how the collaboration skill impacted the perception of a leader’s overall effectiveness. The graph below shows a strong match between a leader’s collaboration skill and their overall leadership effectiveness ratings.
Why is Collaboration Difficult for Some People?
Some leaders and individual contributors find working collaboratively difficult. Many people prefer to work on their own with very little involvement from others. One thing that most people learn early in their school experience is to do their work. One of the advantages of working independently is that you get all the credit when your work is successful. Unfortunately, when you fail while working independently, you also get all the blame. Personality traits can also impact the ability to collaborate. If a person is an introvert, they are often less comfortable working with a group. Organizations are created with the optimistic hope that synergy comes because of collaboration.
In the 1990s, Bell Labs was one of the most innovative research institutions on the planet, hiring the brightest and best scientists and engineers in the world. Often, people imagine that great scientists work alone and rarely interact with others. Two researchers, Kelly and Caplan, studied the scientists in the labs. They were looking for what differentiated the most effective scientists, whom they called “Stars,” from the others. Kelly and Caplan identified a set of skills that separated the “Stars” from the others. In addition to technical and cognitive abilities, the stars utilized leadership behaviors such as networking and communication to magnify their expertise and intelligence. The star scientists realized that when they work collaboratively with others, others were more likely to share insights and information with them, so their expertise grew.
From this research, it appears that collaboration is a skill with three distinct outcomes:
Four Skills that Enable Collaboration
Looking at data from over 103,000 leaders, we were able to identify four key skills that had the most significant impact on a leader’s ability to collaborate effectively. We began by analyzing those leaders who received the highest scores on collaboration. We then analyzed the other patterns of behavior that accompanied high scores on collaboration. The four were:
Builds Positive Relationships
Leaders who can connect with others and create positive relationships are much more effective at collaboration and teamwork. If a person has a positive relationship with others, then collaborating is more likely. Decades ago, a Harvard sociologist, George Homans, advanced a simple theory. He observed that interaction breeds sentiment between people. Conversely, when sentiment increases, this leads to greater interactions. Most of us can think of numerous examples to illustrate that simple point.
A leader does not have to be extraverted or assertive to do this well. When leaders show concern and consideration for others, the bond grows stronger and that invariably leads to more frequent and meaningful interactions. Leaders who have a genuine interest in others and look for opportunities to create win-win outcomes are effective at building positive relationships.
Some leaders believe their effectiveness is enhanced by playing the role of critic and naysayer. Others believe that the demanding, autocratic leader is the one who produces the best results. Those behaviors can succeed at a unique moment. They work when they happen on rare occasions. However, they are not good long-term, steady-diet behaviors.
We also know from our research that the ability to communicate powerfully is one of the easiest skills to improve. But too often, leaders are lazy and inconsistent in keeping others informed. Some leaders may keep others informed, but they do it in a just-the-facts, low energy way. The consequence is that others fail to listen. To collaborate effectively, everyone needs to know what, where, when, how, and why, to execute successfully.
Inspire and Motivate
This competency is often the lowest rated in terms of effectiveness for over 100,000 leaders we have assessed. At the same time, it is considered by direct reports as the most important competency for a leader to possess. Being told to collaborate by a senior leader is similar to having a mother lecture young children to play nicely together, or there will be consequences. People want to be inspired to collaborate. They want to see the vision of how collaboration will help them to achieve impossible goals. Improvements in this skill will not only help with collaboration but also many other difficulties.
This is listed last, but it certainly is not the least important. When trying to diagnose why collaboration did not work, it often comes down to, “We do not trust that person or group.” Trust is the grease that makes organizations work. When trust is lost, collaboration is impossible.
You Don’t Need to be Perfect!
Because we have access to such an extensive database of leaders, we were able to simulate the impact of improvement in any of these four behaviors. The analysis of those findings leads us to identify three different approaches.
Approach 1: Behaving above average at all four.
If a leader has above average performance on all four of these enabling four behaviors, their overall ability to collaborate is at the 79th percentile.
Approach 2: One Profound Strength
Having one profound strength (that is a behavior at the 90th percentile) has a dramatic impact on a leader’s ability to collaborate.
Approach 3: Multiple Strengths
Having just two of the enabling behaviors as profound strengths boosts a leader’s ability to inspire to the 84th percentile. Having four in the 90th percentile jumps a leader into the 96th percentile.
Make Sure You’re Trusted
We looked at the impact of having something we call a fatal flaw. A fatal flaw is a behavior ranked at the 10th percentile. Our research revealed having any of the behaviors at the 10th percentile brings collaboration down to the 21st percentile, but having a fatal flaw specifically in “Trust” sets collaboration at the 10th percentile. Behavior that results in others not trusting someone wipes out all the benefits from the other three behaviors.
Collaboration is a critical skill for every person except for hermits and evil dictators. Exercising these four enabling behaviors has a significant positive effect. We believe that every person can be a more effective collaborator and team member.
—Dr. Joe Folkman
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