Everyone’s had the experience of “working well” with another person or as part of a team, but it’s tricky to explain why that happens. It’s trickier still to recreate the success in a new setting.
One way of encouraging collaboration is to focus on the skills that make it possible.
Collaboration skills, like emotional intelligence and tolerance, may appear to be qualities of character—in other words, something outside our control. I think that’s off track.
From experience, I can tell you that deliberate practice of these collaboration skills will make teams better at them. Here are the top five you should focus on first, and how to build them within your organization.
5 Critical Collaboration Skills
Change is good, but even the most agile teams operate within a known framework of consensual standards. Being consistent is an important part of helping people engage with each other productively, and it should be something you strive for and encourage in your teams.
It’s impossible for people to rely on one another if practices, behaviors, or outcomes are judged on a seemingly random basis. Consistency, on the other hand, inspires trust, organization, and reduces unnecessary stress on employees.
This is especially true in key collaborative areas like:
- Decision making
- Conflict resolution
- Goal setting
- Time management
What makes consistency such a difficult collaboration skill to master is that having it in one sphere may not transfer to another.
Think about a person who starts every meeting on time, runs it well, but inconsistently follows up to the action items people agree on. Everyone will learn to “just show up” for the time-consuming productivity theater.
Consistency is about follow through more than it is about clinging to rigid structures. It’s setting reasonable goals and working toward them in a predictable way. Freethinking is valuable, and it is seldom abetted by shifting deadlines, moving goalposts, and uneven modes of criticism.
If you have to be inconsistent, be transparent. There are compelling reasons for trying something new or bending the rules. Be open about what’s happening and why.
This isn’t always easy, but it’s worth it to build credibility and mutual trust.
Conflict resolution, for example, often requires a nuanced response that may indeed vary from person to person. Balancing privacy with transparency in these situations is challenging, so it is all the more important to have objective standards that you have consistently referenced in the past.
One easy way to build consistency into your life and teams is by using a task management app. With shared calendars, automatic reminders, and easy tracking, everyone will be held accountable for their responsibilities. More than just surfacing issues, these tools help you visualize your daily practices and spot deviations from the norm.
Everyone you collaborate with has other things going on in their life. They need to be able to plan ahead and budget their time in order to be fully present at work.
Good communication is as much about listening as it is about sending the right message.
Individuals who are successful communicators take up and convey valuable information. Within a team or company, they help others articulate their own ideas. They ask questions to better understand the points people are trying to make.
Teams with good communication have a shared understanding of relevant definitions, standards, and jargon. There is agreement about the roles and responsibilities on the team—when someone has a question or sees a problem, they know who to seek and how to explain the situation.
Breakdowns in communication threaten any collaborative project, within or between teams. They manifest themselves in missed deadlines, unhappy customers, and alienation for employees who are seeing negative results despite a ton of hard work.
Worse still, with critical information siloed by gaps in communication, it may be impossible to troubleshoot the problem.
To encourage a healthier way forward, consider running a daily standup. The brief and simple structure works incredibly well for small teams, but you can tailor the event to fit your needs.
The daily standup prevails on people to communicate within the context of the team’s goals. Each person shares and listens to everyone else. It provides structure for collaboration by letting people hear what others have to say, and perhaps more importantly, helps them articulate the ideas in their head.
If things are really bad, consider running a communication audit. This is no small undertaking, as you’ll have to systematically assess the effectiveness of the channels that your company uses to share information.
The payoff is detailed information about the structures that undergird communication at your company. You may find that “more” is not the answer. Less, but more focused communication may serve everyone better than implementing yet another channel.
It’s often the case that people are bombarded by too much information. Out of necessity, they’ve trained themselves not to hear a great many voices at the company. That works until it doesn’t.
Without tolerance, there is no way to build healthy relationships, which are the foundation of effective collaboration.
Collaboration is about bringing different perspectives to bear on the same problem. Intolerance prevents that. Without being open to new ideas, what possibility is there for new solutions?
I’m not aware of any complex issue solved by an echo chamber of like-minded voices.
On the other hand, I’ve worked through some messy meetings with plenty of disagreement where a base level of tolerance kept everyone focused on the goal. Without working through our differences, we could not have found a solution.
A good way to build tolerance is focusing the team on a shared set of values. These should be defined by the team, but I think a good place to start are the 5 Scrum Values.
Though they originated in the world of software development, they can provide a good framework for building tolerance in any group. They are:
- Commitment to one another and team goals.
- Courage to ask hard questions.
- Focus on immediate work and long-term projects
- Openness about the challenges.
- Respect for each person to be capable and independent.
Each of these values sets an objective standard for the group that encourages frank discussion and mutual respect. It’s hard to have your ideas scrutinized and adapted, but such criticism is essential to collaboration.
People need to know that they can voice their perspective safely, even if it challenges someone else’s idea. Collaboration is liberated when people are tolerant and know they can expect the same.
Reflection is one of the most important skills both individuals and teams need in order to improve their processes.
Deliberately reflecting on past experience allows people to build knowledge about how they work, articulate the hurdles that slowed them down, and make positive changes based on this new information.
The same team is going to have good and bad days collaborating. Reflective practice enables these groups to identify specific factors that influence whether or not they work well together.
One of the most common ways for teams to engage in active reflection is by running a retrospective.
Essentially, you bring the team together at the end of a project and talk about what happened in a structured way. There are endless versions of this simple and effective event, but retrospective meetings have a few key elements in common.
- The whole team is present and everyone needs to speak.
- There are a ton of activities you can run to prompt discussion, but you want to make sure that each person answers some form of the following three questions: What went well? What did not go well? What changes should we make for the next project?
- At the end of the meeting, the group agrees on several concrete actions they can take in order to work better together.
The goal behind retrospectives is continuous improvement of a team’s processes, which are the way they collaborate. Through deliberate reflection, even the worst experience can become knowledge by which the team improves together.
5. Emotional intelligence
Someone who is emotionally intelligent recognizes, understands, and manages their emotions.
I’ve seen the term sliced up and defined in dozens of ways—it’s skill that is easy to identify in real life, harder to characterize in exact terms.
It’s sometimes referred to as EQ, but unlike IQ there’s no equivalent test backed by science. Rather, to “know thyself” is a practical skill people have been putting value in since ancient times.
Today, EQ is a highly sought soft skill that employers are looking for. Why? Because it is essential to promoting collaboration.
People with high EQ are less likely to let their emotions get in the way of work. More than that, a high EQ helps people understand the emotional needs of others. They can promote mental health on a team by diffusing situations between conflicting personalities and contributing sanguine solutions during stressful moments.
They’re also more likely to figure out the root causes of emotional issues. When someone isn’t getting their work in on time, it can be upsetting and appear like laziness or incompetence, even if that’s not the case. Someone with emotional intelligence will eschew the snap judgment and search out a deeper picture of the situation.
It’s hard to build emotional intelligence, but you can create conditions for it to grow. Practicing consistency, tolerance, and reflection is a great place to start—this makes for a predictable, open workplace where people are actively encouraged to learn from their experience.
Let people have a voice and show them that it counts. Model EQ by empathizing with colleagues and showing them that you will follow up on their requests.
One easy thing you can do is get the team together outside work. Let people see another side of one another. Sometimes we caricature our colleagues, unconsciously fitting their personality into a box we constructed.
We’re all more complex than our role at work, and recognizing that can be a small but significant step toward building mutual respect and individual awareness.
Final thought: Use collaboration tools
There are many possibilities for collaboration today. Platforms, channels, chats, and feeds—exchanging ideas and information has never been easier.
With conversation taking place in disparate locations, setting your teams up with the best collaboration tools is key to make sure teams stay on the same page.
One person may be on several teams, communicating with external stakeholders, and working on a variety of platforms. Centralizing their collaborative tasks in a single hub reduces stress, automates organization, and gives them the best chance of making a positive contribution.