Building and Leading Collaborative Teams
Collaborative teams are often the best possible way to accomplish a complex task. By bringing together specialists in different areas, an organization can launch new initiatives, enhance customer experience and complete large projects successfully. The team collaboration between group members with different expertise can spark innovation and boost productivity.
However, building and leading teams are themselves complex undertakings. Take a look at why team collaboration is a worthwhile goal. You'll also see guidelines for how to build collaborative teams within your own organization.
What Is Team Collaboration?
Team collaboration occurs when people with specialized and complementary skill sets come together to reach a shared goal. The team members share responsibility for their tasks, and they discover and create solutions together.
Collaboration involves a sense of cooperation that isn't always present in teamwork environments. The members of a collaborative team are flexible and communicative, setting aside egos and personal agendas to accomplish their goals.
Successful team collaboration requires clearly defined roles and responsibilities and a well-established understanding of goals it wants to achieve. In these days when team members may end up collaborating remotely, open and redundant communications channels are also vital.
The Benefits of Collaborative Teams
Teams are more productive when they work together collaboratively rather than having team members siloed into individual positions. In fact, 94% of organizations find collaboration key to their growth. Among the key organizational benefits of team collaboration are the following:
Teams are more productive when they collaborate. They work faster, and they stick with challenging tasks longer. Team members become more engaged with their work, and they report greater interest and less fatigue associated with their tasks. There's good news for the post-COVID-19 work-from-home era. The productivity boost earned through collaboration doesn't disappear when team members are working remotely. Collaborative work also tends to result in eliminating tasks that don't add value to a project, further boosting productivity.
Team collaboration shifts the nexus of decision-making away from the person with the strongest personality or the one who holds the most power. Instead, teams making decisions together focus on fundamental principles. As a result, they make high-quality decisions driven by customer needs. Teams buy into decisions made this way, and the decision-making process often speeds up.
Employees working as part of a collaborative team show a 20% boost in satisfaction and engagement. People like working together. Not surprisingly, lack of collaboration results in a lack of engagement, with 86% of employees citing it as a reason for failures in the workplace.
Working in collaborative teams fosters a sense of trust and creates a space in which psychological safety can flourish. Within a collaborative framework, employees can build authentic relationships. Workplaces that create collaborative environments encourage mutual support in ways that siloed organizations can't provide. When they reduce conflict and competition, trust can grow, delivering the safe place needed for great work.
Employees like to work for companies where they're appreciated and have the opportunity to use their talents. That's especially true in the post-COVID-19 era, with the "Great Resignation" seeing many employees seek greener pastures. When you prioritize collaboration and trust, employees will want to stay with your organization. In turn, that means your projects won't be disrupted by employee turnover.
Creativity thrives when employees collaborate. Teaming people with varied skills and experiences boosts innovation by 60%. This may also harken back to the psychological safety born out of collaboration. When people feel free to take risks, they're more likely to experiment with new ideas that move your organization forward.
Related Article: How to Make Collaboration Work in the Hybrid Workplace
The Challenge of Collaborative Teams: When Teams Don't Work
Understanding why teams sometimes go astray is a key way to keeping your own collaborative teams on track. Sometimes the elements that make teams valuable also pose challenges. The sheer size of some teams can be challenging. Even the welcome diversity that collaborative teams provide can open the door to misunderstandings.
The Harvard Business Review reports on some of the key challenges to collaboration. These include large teams, virtual work, diverse teams and conflict between specialized experts. Large teams today sometimes have more than 100 people. This size works against collaboration, which thrives best with teams of 20 or fewer members.
Working virtually also takes a toll on teamwork and cooperation. Organizations must be proactive about establishing a collaborative framework to beat this challenge.
Diversity is both a pro and con when it comes to collaboration. Yes, diversity of age, ethnic or national background and education opens the door to new ideas. But it can hinder communication since team members are less likely to share existing knowledge. Along with this, team members who are experts in their fields can turn a collaborative environment nonproductive through conflict.
Teams can also falter because they have a history of conflict, competition, and unhealthy relationships. When teams devolve into turf wars, with plenty of back-channel discussions that leave some members out, collaboration suffers.
In addition, poor leadership can hinder a team's productivity and innovation. Team leaders who avoid transparency, don't run meetings well or fail to share information thwart their team's collaboration.
Lack of clarity regarding process, governance and decision-making also undercuts the psychological safety needed in a healthy team. Without trust between team members, a culture of fear can take over and drain a team's energy and creativity.
How to Build Collaborative Teams
Building a collaborative team starts with developing structures and habits that foster collaborative effort. The following steps can be key in helping you create teams designed for collaboration:
Train Your Team in the Skills They Need
You probably already know what skills are needed to accomplish the goals for any given team in your organization. However, your teams also need skills in collaboration itself. Devote some training time to the following skills:
- Conflict resolution.
- Emotional intelligence.
- Having difficult conversations.
- Giving feedback.
- Expressing appreciation.
- Building relationships.
Other key collaborative skills include listening and negotiating. Have your team practice active listening exercises, and model active listening yourself during the work day. Negotiation exercises can help your team learn to look for win-win situations. Collaborative writing exercises are also of value to open and streamline communication. Through all your training, prioritize openness to do away with any cliques or guarding of secrets.
Take Advantage of "Heritage" Relationships
When team members already know each other and have a (healthy) history together, the team is likely to be successful. Teams in which 20% to 40% of the members have good working relationships are more likely to develop positive collaboration. Be careful not to overload teams with too many people who know each other. That's a recipe for dysfunction, as subgroups can form, fostering potential conflict.
On the other hand, teams that are all strangers to one another take extra time to ramp up. They need to establish relationships and start to build trust — and that takes time.
You can shorten that time by taking steps to build relationships across your organization during orientation and training events. Some companies also find it helpful to keep smaller teams intact and move them from one task to another as needed.
Establish Your Guiding Principles and Values
Set aside your organizational chart when you're building a collaborative team. Instead, spend time focusing on the principles and values you want this team to share.
With a statement of values in place, you're well-positioned to point out the behaviors that flow from those values. You can also refer to them should the team's behavior or treatment of each other start to go astray. Try to lean toward values such as trust, excellence, respect, courage and accountability. Without these stated values in place, you don't have a framework for true collaboration.
Build Team Relationships
This piece of guidance doesn't mean you have to commit to those uncomfortable team-building exercises that involve trust falls and oversharing. It also doesn't mean coerced afterwork activities that pull employees away from their families and free time (often for no pay).
Instead, look for moments during the work day when you can facilitate bonding. Order in lunch and take some time to talk about things other than work. Spend one-on-one time with your team members to get to know what they care about, and try to make connections where you see opportunities. Allow time for chatting during your team meetings.
Celebrating one another is also a solid way to build relationships within a team. Highlight the great work team members are doing. Even better, praise those team members to the higher-ups within your company. Celebrating birthdays and other big moments, such as a child's graduation, can help team members feel appreciated.
Use Collaborative Tools
Finding the right workplace balance between privacy and collaborative space is essential to creating a collaborative team. Make sure you have a comfortable space to come together, with room for the whole group.
In addition, explore tools to allow sharing of documents and applications. The right file-sharing system gives everyone access as needed without a lot of obstacles. Look for communicative tools as well, especially if you have team members working virtually or in the field. The more your team is able to communicate, the more their collaboration can thrive.
Related Article: Take a Teams-Based Approach to the Hybrid Workplace
How to Lead Collaborative Teams
Train Your Team Leaders in Both Task and Relationship Leadership
It's the chicken-and-egg question for collaborative team leadership. Which comes first (and matters more): task leadership or relationship leadership?
The secret is that for team collaboration, you need both. Task leadership is necessary to clarify objectives, provide feedback, monitor progress and keep everyone on the same page. Relationship-oriented leadership is needed to create an environment of psychological safety and trust.
Look for leaders who show abilities in both types of leadership and are able to flex depending on the needs of the team. The best team leaders start with task-oriented leadership to establish goals, procedures and responsibilities. They then slide into a more relationship-oriented approach that facilitates getting the job done.
Empowering and Enabling Teams in the New Hybrid Workspace
As hybrid workplaces become the norm, intentionally embracing this new way of working is one key to success.
Power Hybrid Work With Tech That Connects
Robin recently surveyed 300+ professionals to better understand what great leadership looks like in a hybrid world.
Training team leaders on both sides can help them fill in their personal gaps and boost their skills. Seek to promote people who show evidence of both types of leadership.
Establish Expectations and Metrics
Team members feel more comfortable when they know what to expect. That understanding clears the way for them to be creative. Maybe your employees aren't used to working collaboratively, so they need to understand what you expect in that way. Or perhaps they aren't clear on task expectations, including deadlines and responsibilities. For long-term projects, it's a good idea to review expectations every week or so to keep everyone focused.
Establishing your overall collaboration strategy is also a good idea as you ramp up. Your employees want to see that you're committed to collaboration and willing to invest in them. They'll feel confident in your leadership when they can see that you have a coherent strategy and plan in place.
In addition, team members will feel confident if they know how you're measuring both their individual performance and the team's performance as a whole. Be transparent about these metrics, so people understand the standards are the same for everyone. Data-driven metrics pull subjectivity away from the equation to help create a sense of fairness.
Some employees may be nervous about joining a highly collaborative team because they fear bonuses or promotions may be at stake. Make sure your employees know you will reward collaborative efforts appropriately. That means expressing appreciation for individual efforts as part of a collaborative team, of course.
However, your appreciation has to go beyond nice words. Establish an incentive structure that delivers practical (i.e., monetary) benefits to individual employees based on their collaboration efforts. That's the prime way to send the message that your organization indeed values collaboration.
Your collaborative team's efforts will fall or rise based on communication. A weekly team meeting isn't going to cut it here. Look for ways to create communication channels in every direction and between all team members.
Encourage your team leaders to promote an open-door policy. They should be accessible to all members of their team at any level. Seek out feedback from the team, anonymously if needed, and respond to the feedback to build trust. Make all communications channels and guidelines clear, so that team members know they're free to meet together at will.
Foster Flexibility, Adaptability and Creativity
One of the main reasons to adopt a collaborative framework is to foster innovation. It only makes sense, then, that you'd want to overtly foster creativity within your teams. This requires a sense of openness on the part of all team members, which relies, again, on psychological safety within the group.
Leaders of innovative, collaborative teams must be adaptable, ready to flex and compromise as new ideas come to the table. They must recognize good ideas when they see them. Leaders should also prepare to fan the flame of weak ideas that hold a kernel of innovation. They must also be willing to pivot to incorporate radical change when appropriate. Make sure your team leaders aren't just intellectually ready for this challenge but emotionally flexible as well.
Learn How to Manage Conflict
Even in the most collaborative of teams, conflict will arise. People will disagree about what path to take. Obstacles that hinder the path forward will make people irritable. It's natural to want to avoid or ignore this — but it's also destructive to do so.
Sometimes conflict is rooted in one individual. (Note: Make sure as a leader that this individual isn't yourself!) For instance, if you have a bully on your team, you may have to remove them for the good of your team. Start by identifying the conflict. Then seek ways to find compromises and resolutions to the conflict.
Don't think you're done once you've found a resolution, though. Conflict leaves scars. You also have to find a way to move forward. This can involve getting your team back on track and restoring any broken trust. Be courageous enough to face issues vulnerably and honestly, and work to preserve the psychological safety of your teams.
Model Collaborative Behavior
If you want to lead a collaborative team, you need to model cooperative behavior yourself. Depending on your organization, this can take different forms. You might want to make sure all your leaders can substitute for one another and answer all basic questions, for instance. That allows employees to have access to leadership at all times.
Leaders who keep themselves accessible in other ways, such as an open-door policy, also model collaboration. Excellent internal communication also plays a role here. Make sure your leaders know all their team members on a first-name basis and that lines of communication are kept open.
When Team Collaboration Goes Virtual
As many people have discovered during the last couple of years, teamwork takes on a different tone when it occurs through a computer screen. It's one thing to design a collaborative working environment where your team members can innovate and spur each other to good work. It's completely different to try to maintain high-level collaboration when everyone is working from home and may not even be wearing pants.
Communication becomes even more important when you regulate your team to virtual collaboration. Misunderstandings are more likely when virtual limits channels of communication. You also lose the opportunities to chat and build relationships that occur naturally in person.
It's also easy to lose good ideas during virtual communication. This is in part a result of the loss of redundancy that comes naturally when you're all in the same room. When someone floats an idea in person, other people pick it up and toss it around. Online, people are more likely to censor their responses. Consider assigning someone to take notes to make sure good ideas don't get lost during brainstorming sessions.
How to Maximize Virtual Collaboration
Lean into finding the right communication tools across multiple channels to keep your team on the same page. Group communication platforms allow rapid back-and-forth among a large group, making them highly preferable to email. Make sure information flows freely and that all your team members have access to what they need to do their jobs.
Shared online workspaces, including document-sharing options, also can make a difference. Videoconferencing, whichever tool you choose, isn't the same as being in the room together, but it does allow that important face-to-face contact. The temptation is to get right to work when you're connecting online so as to avoid so-called "Zoom fatigue." Make sure you allow time for chat (and take advantage of the chat option on whatever tool you're using).
You should also make an extra effort to confirm everything that you communicated. Create follow-up lists after each online meeting to make sure people understand what you expect of them. Put things in writing, and reach out to individuals to avoid any misunderstandings.
Building Collaborative Teams for Your Company's Future
Today, the extent to which collaboration is possible — or necessary — far exceeds anything from the past. Building collaborative models that meet the challenge your company faces is crucial for innovation and even survival.
When you take the time to build trust between team members, your teams will have each other's backs. They'll then be better able to focus on the task at hand. Listening to the other members of your team and keeping your door open will pay priceless dividends going forward.
With the right collaboration tools in place and a smart strategy that prioritizes team members' psychological safety, you can build a healthy future. Stay flexible and transparent to help team members feel confident in your leadership. Your efforts to build collaborative teams should result in boosted productivity and long-term employee retention.