Collaboration has been a defining characteristic of our success as a species. Working together we’ve achieved everything from building pyramids to the internet, the Magna Carta to democracy, ocean voyages to moon landings. We owe so much to our ability to collaborate. We’ve come a long way from hauling rocks using rope and log rollers or hunting woolly mammoths.

Today, we collaborate daily on projects with people we might never meet, in cities we’ve never been, and whose names we might never know. Yet, in this globalized system, why does collaboration work exactly and what are some of the psycho-social drivers behind it?

What is Collaboration?

Collaboration is generally defined as when two or more individuals work together to obtain a shared outcome. It’s a group of people who work towards a common goal.

There are often two types of collaboration we can categorize:

  • Synchronous Collaboration, which refers to when a group interacts in real-time. For example, this type happens in virtual meetings, video calls, messaging apps, and so on.
  • Asynchronous Collaboration, which refers to when the interaction can be done together, but not necessarily at the same time. For example, it might involve uploading documents to a shared workspace or reviewing and proofing a shared document.

Today, collaboration takes plenty of forms. While working remotely has certainly made it more difficult, technology, including innovative collaborative tools, has helped dramatically to create the potential for effective collaboration.

It is fair to assume collaboration is good for us. The reality is that it is nearly a requirement to successfully build anything of substance. To this extent, there are some interesting theories and studies that have been conducted to assess both the risk and benefits of collaboration.

The Benefits of Collaboration

Here are a few of the ways in which collaboration is beneficial:

Improved Problem-Solving

First, of course, collaboration is important for successful communication. In one large meta-analysis, researchers looked at hundreds of collaborative learning studies. The clear conclusion was that collaborative learning strategies improved students’ ability to problem-solve.

They also found collaboration leads to improved social skills like empathy and social understanding. By working together, we are exposed to other perspectives and ideas. When we improve our social awareness, we’re better able to communicate with others and articulate our ideas to come up with better solutions.

Promote a Diversity of Ideas

Another key benefit of collaboration is the diversity of learning between individuals and even different departments in large organizations. One learning theory, coined by psychologist Lev Vygotsky, is the idea of the Zone of Proximal Development. Essentially, when learning new skills, there is a limit to how much you can teach yourself. To expand your mental framework, you need an expert (or someone smarter than you) to guide you.

In any organization, breaking down silos is an easy way to expose teams to new ideas—and get them out of their comfort zones. Cross-departmental collaboration is vital for diversifying voices.

Higher Engagement

Because collaboration requires everyone to work together to succeed, it can lead to higher levels of engagement. Referred to as Social Interdependence Theory, it’s the psychological process involving positive interdependence, where collaboration is heavily influenced by the degree with which our actions compliment each other, how receptive we are to being influenced, and how generous we are.

It’s critical when no single individual can reach their goals without the success of everyone else in the group. It’s all for one or none for all. And when stakeholders feel involved, invested and included in processes and decisions, outcomes improve.

Improved Learning

Finally, not surprisingly, collaboration has a huge positive impact on our information retention and learning.

Some experiments have tried encouraging collaborative testing of students. What would happen if you tested students in a group rather than as individuals? They measured to see how this form of collaboration affected grades and the results showed it did, in fact, significantly improve performance.

An application of this could be for teams looking to improve their new employee onboarding system. Collaboration, in the form of a buddy system, could help employees learn faster and retain information better.

The Risks of Collaboration

While collaboration has a host of benefits, there can be some drawbacks. Here are some of the pitfalls we can fall into and how they can be addressed.

Social Loafing

One risk that comes with collaboration is social loafing. When there are more people involved in a project, there is a diffusion of responsibility and in the process, an individual’s work performance and output can decrease.

As teams grow in size, so do the chances of certain individuals doing less. This can be caused by several factors, but one such reason seems to be that when individuals think others will put in less effort, then they put in less effort as well. On top of this, there’s always the issue that “someone else can do it”.

To prevent this, you can implement a variety of measures to create ownership, such as establishing clear accountability and assigning specific tasks to individuals.

Groupthink

Another issue is groupthink, first documented by social psychologist, Irving Janis, in 1971. When certain group members dominate the conversation, it can cause groupthink. While some might disagree, they choose instead to maintain conformity and go with what the more vocal group members are saying. Everyone settles on the same decision (or seems to).

This can be avoided by encouraging discussion and those who disagree to speak-up. It can also be a good habit to hold a followup meeting, especially on controversial decisions, to see if any doubts came up in the interim.

False Consensus Effect

Many of us also have a tendency to fall prey to the False Consensus Effect. This is a type of cognitive bias in which we use limited data of our own experience and assume it’s common.

In a group of people working on a large project where the manager thinks the project is going well, they might assume everyone thinks it’s going well. This could actually be an incorrect assumption if they’re not communicating with or ignoring other stakeholders who think the opposite is true.

To paint a full picture of how things are going, aim to identify (and address) dissension. It is not only critical to effective collaboration and being inclusive, but it will also help in avoiding costly mistakes down the road.

Difficulties of Effective Remote Collaboration

As many workers have shifted to remote or hybrid work, collaboration might seem difficult to achieve. Workplaces and jobs that rely on the ability to bounce ideas off each other could suffer in this new era.

In a study published by Nature, researchers analyzed the communication of remote workers at Microsoft and found there were fewer connections between workers. Our new collaboration pattern, with a higher reliance on online collaboration, can reduce the amount of knowledge being shared and in the process negatively impact the quality of work.

Collaboration is fundamental to every industry, but working remotely makes it difficult. Remote collaboration requires intentionality. It’s a critical concern in addressing burnout and stress. And for the collaborative leader of the next decade, being able to lead a decentralized team, especially in an evolving environment, is a must.

Ultimately though, everyone from leadership on down needs to do their part to ensure they are being a better team collaborator. In an era of rapid organizational and global change, it’s the only way to keep the boat sailing in the right direction.

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