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Collaboration Takes Work, And Starts At The Top

In our Employee Work Passion model, we define collaboration as "the extent to which employees perceive that cooperation is more important than competition among individuals within a work unit and/or across work units within the organization."

Collaboration is great when it happens. But guess what? It’s not a natural state. It is a highly evolved way of relating. Fear, frustration, friction, and even political mayhem are more likely to be what happens when people come together naturally.

In organizations where people work cooperatively and selflessly, it's usually through a specific directive of leaders. It’s the result of a positive work environment where people feel a sense of belonging, well-being, and safety. This is when they are able to access those higher level behaviors of cooperation, selflessness, working together, and thinking of the good of the whole before the good of the unit or the individual.

This has been part of the human condition throughout history. Any time human beings come together in groups, someone eventually feels the need to create a pecking order. Even after the group stabilizes, there are usually outside forces such as distribution of resources, a changing environment, or a competitive threat that again drive the need among people to figure out who's on top and who's on bottom. It's been going on since the beginning of organized society. Without a common set of values and a common cause that includes rules on how to engage together in healthy ways, those natural dynamics will emerge again and again.

The leader’s role

One study we looked at points out the impact a CEO’s style has on the success of an organization. This study found that the climate of the top management team is highly influenced by the CEO. It also found that CEOs tend to fall into one of two different camps. One camp contains CEOs who promote a culture of fear. The other camp is made up of CEOs who create a strong sense of teamwork, collaboration, and cooperation. The study showed that the fear-based top management teams—under the influence of the CEO—create a very different organizational culture than those teams that are collaboratively focused.

Fear-based organizations tend to feature executives and direct reports who are more interested in guarding their own turf, covering themselves, and looking up to see what the boss wants, instead of looking out. In these organizations, the lack of safety in the environment makes it less likely that members of the top management team will engage in selfless behaviors. Instead, these executives will be more focused on protecting what they have, protecting their own people, and protecting their function. Working cooperatively with other members of the team takes a backseat.

This behavior cascades down through the ranks. The result is an organization with more silos and turf battles, which translates into less cooperation, lower levels of service, and a negative influence on overall employee work passion. Instead of focusing on creating a motivating work environment with high levels of productivity overall, executives are engaged in fighting among themselves for resources.

Collaboration starts at the top

Leaders in the best organizations work intentionally to create a cooperative and collaborative environment. There's an old saying that a fish stinks from the head first. A sense of cooperation and collaboration must be driven and exemplified by the top management team and reinforced throughout the organization.

Pressures and fearful circumstances crop up on a regular basis in all organizations—they are not one-time events. Senior leaders need to maintain constant vigilance and model cooperation on a regular basis. By continually demonstrating that "we’re all in this together," leaders embed cooperation into the organizational culture.

If senior executives notice a pervasive uncooperative spirit in the organization, they need to look at what they've been doing. Are organizational goals clear? Are people engaged emotionally in the company’s mission and vision? Have expected behaviors been clarified and demonstrated by senior leadership?

Remember, cooperation takes intentional effort. People who aren't cooperating are just behaving naturally as human beings. If you’re looking to create a more collaborative culture in your organization, first take a look at what’s happening on your own team. Be a role model for others in the organization. Demonstrate collaborative behavior. You’ll be surprised at the positive difference it will make.

Scott Blanchard is the Executive Vice President of Client Solutions for The Ken Blanchard Companies®. Ken Blanchard is the best-selling co-author of The One Minute Manager® and 50 other books on leadership. You can follow Ken Blanchard on Twitter @KenBlanchard or @LeaderChat and also via the HowWeLead and LeaderChat blogs.

[Image: Flickr user Kevin Ash]