Want Your Organization to Collaborate More? Social Psychology Can Help
In principle, business leaders understand the importance of effective collaboration within their organization: It advances innovation, smooths operations and bolsters the well-being of individuals. In practice, however, how to drive collaboration is not always obvious.
Social psychology can help.
Kurt Lewin, the founder of social psychology, famously observed both that a single individual behaves differently across various situations and also that different individuals behave differently in the same situation. Lewin summarized his observation in a single equation: B = f (P, E).
Lewin’s equation defines behavior as a function of the person and their environment. For business leaders who wish to unlock collaboration in their organization, this little equation holds the key.
Explaining Lewin’s Equation
Let’s start first with the P — the person. An individual collaborator brings a constellation of skill sets, mindsets and dispositions to the office (or church council, or community group) that inform who — and how — they work as collaborators.
For example, someone could be a stellar communicator who happens to feel positively about the promise and potential of collaboration. They might be especially conscientious, as well as open to new people and new ideas.
While these are all qualities of a good collaborator, they don’t guarantee the person will behave collaboratively in your organization.
Why not? Because the environment — the E in Lewin’s equation — matters, too.
The environment consists of every layer of context in which an individual is embedded. These layers can be proximal, distal or somewhere in between.
Related Article: Why Aren’t Companies Teaching Us How to Collaborate?
Relationships with collaborators are the most proximal layer. The quality of the relationships among your people can either nudge or undermine desired behaviors. For example, a collaborative person in a co-worker relationship filled with trust and mutual concern will behave collaboratively. If that same person is in a relationship with a co-worker who fails to follow through on their commitments — or who lobs barbs or steals credit — they will likely withdraw and become self-protective.
Then there are the tools, processes and roles deployed in service to collaborative action. These form the structural environment in which collaboration unfolds (or fails to). Teams from different departments will struggle to harmonize their work if their respective software tools don’t integrate. An exploratory process that prematurely constrains the range of viewpoints and possibilities considered will undercut the quality of the work.
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There’s also the distal yet powerful layer of an organization’s culture. Beyond hollow assertions that a company values collaboration, it must make it possible, easy, normative and rewarding. Someone not particularly predisposed to behave collaboratively will be more likely to do so within this environment.
Fostering Future Collaboration
Thus, business leaders who want to nudge collaborative behavior must simultaneously think about their people and their environments. Both are important as well as mutually limiting and amplifying.
When working within an environment that fails to support collaboration, even the most synergetic individuals are unlikely to engage in collaborative behaviors, at least not in a persistent and effective way.
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Embedding uncollaborative individuals in a highly collaborative environment is also likely to nudge at least a modicum of collaborative behavior.
But here’s where the real gold lies: Bolster collaborative individuals with an environment that persistently supports collaboration. Doing so will yield big dividends in terms of collaborative behavior.
If you want more collaboration in your organization, look to both the people and the environment for levers you can pull. Here are some examples:
- Hire individuals who demonstrate collaborative mindsets and skill sets.
- Provide collaboration upskilling opportunities to employees.
- When pulling together a new team or onboarding a new person to an existing team, dedicate time to developing relationships before jumping into the nuts and bolts of the work.
- Invite teams to co-create explicit expectations about how they would like to work together.
- When asking “What could we do?,” invite and encourage new perspectives.
- Establish and use company-wide conventions (e.g., software, jargon) to make it easier for people to work across departments and to move from one team to another.
- Evaluate the quality of the collaborative process rather than just the product to ensure it continues to meet the needs of the individuals.
- Incentivize collaborative work.
- Highlight collaboration successes in company-wide communications.
If you want more collaboration within your organization, mind both the people and the environment. Doing so will nudge the collaborative behaviors you want to see.
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About the Author
Dr. Deb Mashek, PhD is an experienced business advisor, professor, higher education administrator, and national nonprofit executive. Connect with Deb Mashek: