Collaboration is more than a two-way street. It’s more than even a busy intersection. It’s closer to a synchronized air show – each team member’s role is dependent on the success of the others’. A failure to commit by any one person could have unfortunate consequences for the entire group.

With such high stakes, even the most skilled and experienced pilot is constantly practicing being a stronger team player.

Thankfully, most of us do not hold our colleagues’ lives in our hands when we join forces to meet a collective business goal or move a project forward. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t each be working to internalize and incorporate proactive collaboration practices into our approaches to working as a team.

A team of expert collaborators doesn’t just make for a more pleasant working dynamic – it also leads to stronger and more dynamic outcomes.

1. Be a Better, More Active Listener

Because good collaboration is all about communication, it’s important to hone your listening skills. Natural collaborators have an innate aptitude for making others feel that their ideas are being heard and considered.

An easy starting point – make a pledge not to interrupt or talk over your teammates. If you think you have that piece under control, next work on your active listening skills. Give the speaker your full attention. Encourage them with nonverbal cues. Don’t try to multitask. Ask questions.

Try being a better, more active listener and see how it changes your collaborative dynamic.

2. Break Down Silos by Using the Right Tools

Spreadsheets and emails just aren’t built to facilitate dynamic communication. Make sure your team is connecting through a flexible medium made to accommodate the specific collaborative workflow needs of your project. This is ever more important if you’re not able to benefit from the practical advantages of working together in person – and many of us aren’t, these days. Choosing tools that address remote collaboration gaps to be bridged at the outset eliminates unnecessary friction caused by information silos.

3. Lead With a Visual

Visual aids aren’t just key pieces for the all-important client-facing presentation, but an important vector for team collaboration. If you think you could communicate your train of thought better with a rudimentary sketch or an impromptu wireframe, don’t hold back. Modern-day collaboration is a visual medium  – because the brain is first and foremost an image processor. Use this to your team’s advantage.

4. Make It Your Mission to Motivate

“The power of positive thinking” is more than just a platitude – it’s a theory that has been proven through many a psychological study. Positive thinking has been shown to activate the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory. That means that if you’re feeling frustrated or uninspired, a “fake it ’til you make it” approach could be all that’s needed to get the wheels turning.

Positive energy doesn’t just benefit you, but the entire group. So squash any negativity before coming into a collaborative environment – and make it your mission to motivate, encourage and celebrate your collaborators.

5. Be Accountable (with Clearly Defined and Shared Roles and Goals)

Do you understand exactly what is expected of you, and when? Just as importantly, how does the timely and accurate delivery of your piece of the puzzle impact every other collaborator’s work?

From there, keeping on top of an accessible and consolidated archive of the discussions and decisions made throughout the project’s lifecycle is a must to ensure that you are aware of anything new that may impact your piece. Accountability is an essential element of collaboration, and without transparent and well-defined roles and goals, your collaboration is futile.

In a project, like the forest, if a tree falls and nobody hears it…

6. Be Flexible

Now that you’ve got your goals in hand, we all know things don’t always go to plan – so it’s best to be open to this idea from the outset, and be ready to roll with any backup plan as needed. Even without a backup plan, you need to take a collaborative approach to the pivot, u turn or about-face.

Being rigid is the enemy of effective collaboration. On the other hand, flexibility puts your fellow collaborators at ease when you are faced with collective obstacles. Set the tone by demonstrating openness to alternative ways of doing things.

7. Adhere to the Group Norms…Even When It’s Not Convenient

Without group norms, team members are essentially left to hurtle through space without a flight plan. Group norms are the “ground rules” a team commits to operating by, providing a clear framework for all collaboration. They might determine the chosen medium(s) of communication, a specific meeting structure, creative workflow preferences or a process for making important decisions. These shortcuts are essential to fluid and efficient project delivery.

The highest-functioning teams – going back to that air traffic metaphor – know exactly the flight plans, technology and systems being used by their colleagues. This gives them confidence to fly a 80,000 kg mass of steel, gas, and humans through the sky, 35,000 feet over the ocean.

It can be tempting to abandon the established norms for the sake of your own convenience and expedience, but committing to normalizing the norms helps to build a shared system of values among collaborators – essential for healthy and respectful collaboration.

8. Balance Me and We

Because individualism is highly valued and celebrated in many societies, it can be difficult to shift from prioritizing independence and self-reliance to a more collectivist mindset. Collaboration requires a mix of both “me” and “we” as team members come together and then break apart to work on their own pieces. A cohesive group outcome requires striking a careful balance – by dialing down the ego and taking pride not just in your own work, but in how things come together as a whole.

We don’t always think of collaboration as a skill to be honed and practiced. But the truth is that a careless or trivial approach to working together almost always reveals itself in the outcome. On the other hand, cultivating a conscious collaborative mindset has the power to transform your work and your relationships, resulting in a dynamic environment primed for possibilities.


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