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Great tips on workplace collaboration

This is an extract from The Vices and Virtues of Collaboration, an e-book put together in 2017 by Dropbox and The School of Life


WE might be tempted to think that our time at work would go much better if only there weren't so many other people getting in the way. But the truth is that while solitude and introspection are critical for us to develop creative new ideas, if all work was done alone, we wouldn't have progressed much beyond the Palaeolithic age.

Good collaboration is not of course just the responsibility of individuals. Organisations must also contribute to the collaborative success of their teams by creating cultures and practices that make it easier for individuals to practise the collaborative virtues needed.

The following are four virtues that make for great collaboration - and recommended mental and social tools that individuals, teams, and entire organisations can use to become virtuous, heroic collaborators.

Gaining clarity

For individuals: Focus on clarifying your specific role, and the role of others

Rather than shaming ourselves, or berating others for loafing, we should treat a serious cause of this vice: a complex muddle over what we're meant to be doing. Assigning specific roles and tasks to each member of the group is a critical first step. It can be deeply embarrassing to ask for a clarification of roles, and even missing the first five minutes of a meeting can leave us awkwardly stumped for days. Roles will naturally change over time, so by building in a series of pre-agreed moments over the course of a project, we can clearly review and, if necessary, redefine our roles and responsibilities.

For teams: Build in time to think, and come prepared

The current working landscape is so frenetic that taking even ten minutes to sit alone and think can seem like the height of indulgent luxury. It isn't. At work, we also need to build considerable time into project plans for participants to go away alone and come to their own, clearly defined views from the start. Some organisations, for example, are now ring-fencing certain hours in the week where no meetings or interruptions are allowed across the whole company. When we feel confident that there are specific times that are held sacrosanct for private work, we are much more likely to be willing to give time to help others when they ask for it on the spur of the moment.

For organisations: Clarify your broader organisation purpose

When organisations fail to adequately define or communicate to employees the deeper purpose behind their work, they run the risk of spawning a workforce of disengaged loafers. When it's unclear how our work will, in some way, however small, benefit others, dragging employees out of their warm beds can be struggle.

From placation to contention

For individuals: Practise the art of the indirect question

If we noticed Socrates by the water cooler, his line of interrogation could be incredibly good natured. Instead of "Do you believe in happiness?", he might ask: "I wonder if anyone is really happy?" Using this type of indirect, subjunctive language can be much more conducive to successful collaboration and can open up contentious topics without ruffling too many feathers. This, of course, also involves us being more graciously open to questioning and critique ourselves. This can be difficult but truly gratifying in the long run.

For teams: Implement an obligation to dissent

A number of consultancies talk about an "obligation to dissent" with their clients, to deliberately play devil's advocate even when they might be in agreement with the proposed course of action. We might appoint certain individuals to play the role of a Socratic dissenter in meetings, gently but resolutely questioning perspectives that otherwise have full consensus. Team leaders should take this responsibility even more seriously and might learn from the example of General Motor's president in the 1920s, Alfred P Sloan Jr, who was known for actively soliciting dissenting views.

For organisations: Role model directness

Both at a psychological and historical level, we have backgrounds that have emphasised the art of indirectness and of bottling things up. Leaders must celebrate and encourage conflict, opposition and disagreement - but practise being able to give and receive it good-naturedly and with as little defensiveness as they can muster. The key, however, is to implement this kind of behaviour in a way where contention is depersonalised and done in a constructive and psychologically safe way. A lesson might be learned from the aviation industry, where the cost of a single mistake is so high that airlines have made it a priority to foster truly collaborative cultures both within and between companies - where everyone feels safe and respected to voice concerns and alternative ideas early on.

From posturing to realism

For individuals: Become more comfortable with ambivalence

Ambivalence does not mean having mixed feelings about something but being able to hold two or more competing ideas in your mind and to weigh them up over a period of time without feeling the need to instantly plump for one or the other position. We might at times feel that admitting we just aren't sure will make us seem weak, especially in a culture which puts such high value on us holding strongly felt opinions on everything from cat videos on YouTube to global politics but as the American author F Scott Fitzgerald noted: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."

For teams: Hold regular secret ballots

To encourage more honest contributions, we might try first privately noting down our ideas and opinions and only later sharing them with others. We might perhaps ask a colleague to read out our ideas to save us from improvising in the spur of the moment when we might be unduly swayed by the current dominant mood of the group.

For organisations: Invest in better corporate art and design

The artwork or design that companies choose (or don't) is no trivial factor, it gives employees a clear message of what the company thinks is important. Organisations might choose artworks that better foster the sense that we're not alone in our anxieties. Art can remind us that even the most successful CEOs (chief executive officers), innovators and entrepreneurs are as prone as the rest of us to trip over their shoelaces, to burp unexpectedly while with colleagues, or to accidentally "reply all" on a private message. Art can remind us that it's ok to feel worried, insecure and anxious - and yet give us the courage to join in anyway.

From misplaced confidence to appreciation

For individuals: Practise silence

It helps to place a higher value on the use of silence when communicating. We might learn from more reflective practices, such as in Native American culture, where people tend not to speak directly after another person has spoken but to leave a gap, even of up to ten to twelve seconds, for reflection. With silence valued highly, speakers tend to become more reflective themselves. We might find that we get fewer contributions but that those we do get will be far wiser.

For teams: Take turns chairing meetings

This allows everyone to have a bit more say from time to time. It can also be very helpful in every meeting to practise taking time to hear one another and to take turns speaking, perhaps with a set of rules to nudge us to hear new voices. This in turn fosters recognition that the views of others are just as important as our own. An example of this ideal in the digital space is the free, crowdsourced encyclopaedia Wikipedia, criticised by some but constantly undergoing improvement because of its ever-rotating series of open-source editors.

For organisations: Monitor performance by tracking "assists"

In the world of sports, pundits and players routinely give credit to "assists" from teammates. We might implement organisational policies and metrics which foster the appreciation of employees asking each other for help. The idea is that building strong, collaborative organisations is not about investing in better bricks (in fact, teams of individual superstars generally perform poorly), but finding ways to strengthen the mortar between all the bricks. A number of organisations have changed their annual review process so that, rather than focusing on how well an employee has met individual targets compared to their peers (something which may not be in their total control in any case), they very simply review how often they have asked, or been asked, for help that year by colleagues. In other words, it is culture, not recruitment or strategy, that is the key to long-term success.

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