6 Keys to Being a Better Collaborator


I’m often NOT a good collaborator. Sometimes, I’m a horrible one.

I was reminded of this during a chat last week with my colleague Vera, Head of HR for a global life sciences enterprise.

I love to collaborate with you if respect you and your skills, I confess to Vera. If I don’t, all my worst instincts come to the fore.

Sigh. From me, from Vera.

I know, she says. Collaborating with a bunch of A-team players can be exhilarating. Most of the time collaboration feels like a complex and never-ending slog to an outcome you don’t love, and you wish you had just done it by yourself.

Another sigh. It felt good to own it.

Collaboration is one of our workplace sacred cows. We’re expected to embrace it as a rollicking good practice. The challenge, says Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School, is this: Leaders who want to create collaborative workplace cultures try hard to instill collaboration as a value. What they forget is that collaboration requires good old-fashioned skills. More importantly perhaps, subtle and highly nuanced skills. The sort of skills that we hone through a commitment to life-long learning.

Collaboration is the essence of life. The wind, bees and flowers work together to spread the pollen." ~ Amit Ray, Indian author and mystic

Gino’s article in The Harvard Business Review – “Cracking the Code of Sustained Collaboration” (HBR, November/December 2019) – highlights the work of companies such as Pixar, Webasto, and American Express who invest in collaboration-skills-training.

When I look at the list of 6 skill sets that Gino identifies, my first thought is yeah, I know these. Upon reflection I remember how “not easy” they are – and how quickly they can fly out the window when we collaborate with someone who for whatever reason is not our ideal collaborator.

Let’s take a look at Gino’s top 6 collaboration skills.

1. Teach people to listen, not talk.

But of course, you may say to yourself, I have taken an active listening class. Well, here are some very specific ways of practicing a higher-level of listening, especially when the conversation may not be flowing with ease:

  • Whenever possible, ask an expansive question to better understand another’s point-of-view instead of responding right away. 
  • Focus on the listener instead of getting busy crafting a response to what the speaker is saying. When focusing inward, conduct quick “self-checks” to stay present with what you’re thinking and feeling. 
  • Allow for silence instead of resorting to a fast response. Silence helps both you and the speaker to better absorb what has just been said, and silence invariably invites a richer and more thoughtful response.

2. Train people to practice empathy.

When I was trained as a mediator at the Brooklyn Courts, one of the most potent techniques I learned was the “Shoe Swap.” Instead of rebutting what a speaker says, I intentionally pause, put myself in the other person’s shoe, for just a moment, to sincerely seek to understand why s/he thinks or feels the way s/he does.

Hard to do. And powerful stuff. It invariably changes the course of any conversation.

3. Make people comfortable with honest feedback.

Because so many of us have received vague, platitudinous or at times personally hurtful feedback, it is easy to shy away from giving honest and actionable feedback to others. Or we may, intentionally or not, signal that we don’t wish to receive feedback ourselves and just want to get on with things.

How do we begin to move into a more effective feedback environment that prevents collaborative endeavors from getting stuck? Have the courage to openly talk about aversions to feedback, choose to practice frequent feedback that is direct, specific, and actionable – and give each other feedback about the quality of feedback that is or isn’t happening. Stay feedback-conscious!

4. Teach people to lead AND follow.

I have taught these skills for years. Some folks call it switching from Advocacy to Inquiry. I like energy language and think of it as knowing when to Push and when to Pull.

Great collaborators are comfortable with both pushing and pulling. They have a keen sense of when to use one approach over the other. And they do so with clear purpose. Makes sense, right? The key success factor: Be comfortable with both communication styles AND use them with strategic intent.

5. Speak with clarity, avoid abstractions.

Know when brainstorming is over. Know when abstraction, more big ideas and additional data will not move you closer to action or making progress. Know when it is time to get specific. Know when it is time to condense what you need to say into 3 or 4 sentences. Know when it is time to call for action. And have the courage to do it. You will elevate the collaborative discourse for everyone involved.

6. Train people to have win-win interactions.

Sounds good, right? You may even have studied the terrific Harvard Negotiation model that teaches tools for getting to win-win. In reality, this is never easy. If I had to boil a win-win mindset down to 2 simple tactics, it is these:

  • Talk transparently about what winning looks like for the various members of a collaborative team. You may be surprised – there may be wildly different thoughts on how define a win. This conversation alone will move you closer to a win-win outcome and minimize potential frustration. 
  • Discuss what folks need so they can be happy with a win. The moment essential needs are addressed, it is often much easier to embrace a win that at first doesn’t not seem palatable. A seismic shift.

Since I am quoting wisdom from a Harvard Business Review article, allow me to quote one more HBR article. If you’re collaboration-weary, you’re not alone. In “Collaboration Overload” (HBR, January-February 2016), authors Rob Cross, Rebele and Adam Grant asserter that in the last 2 decades, the time spent on collaborative activities in a corporation has ballooned by 50%.

Moreover, their research shows that up to a third of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees.

These findings pinpoint what you already know so well from your own life. How often have you been invited to a meeting where you were not critical to a collaborative endeavor – yet, there you were? How many other folks were sitting in the same meeting who also were not essential to the same project?

Collaborate when collaboration is essential to a project’s success. Be clear when true collaboration is NOT mission-critical. Avoid collaboration overload.

And if you’re going to collaborate, do it with skill.

Related: Is Your Confidence Right-Sized?