The Onerous Road to Collaboration

Collaboration, Seamless, Collective, teamwork…. these are words more spoken than experienced in real life, especially in corporate world. We get glimpses of it in specific situations or few teams. But, it eludes us more often than we would like it to. 

Teams are taken for off sites and team bonding meets. People bond and connect, work together to achieve tough goals in outdoor or indoor settings. Yet, when they come back to workplace, most of the learning evaporates and people fall back to usual routines!!

Why is it easy to collaborate in team or simulated events, yet hard to replicate in real world? 

I recall an incident from my teens, we were working hard to crack the entrance exams for college. Three of us, good friends through the school years, were supporting each other in the journey. One day I was visiting this friend for joint study; from the driveway, I saw her quickly hiding some books. Later I got to know that she had ordered few reference books from Delhi. These were days without Internet; thus books and knowledge held a premium and she wanted to use them to her advantage. Competition!! After all, there were fixed number of engineering seats. We had SAME GOAL, but not a COMMON GOAL. For her to win, I didn’t necessarily have to win. In fact, my winning marginally reduced her chance of winning.

Right through our childhood – be it education or sports or art or any other field – many of us have aspired (or have been goaded) to be at the top of the class, ahead of the pack.. 

The competition continues as we progress through our college – we compete for top percentile scores or coveted campus placements – courtesy bell curve grading and few sought after placements!! 

When we join workplace, the trend continues – we compete for performance ratings, rewards / recognition, promotions… 

Yet, all of us have collaborated with friends and colleagues countless times – be it in schools or college or at work. This same friend who hid the books away, helped me clarify several concepts in physics (which was Achilles heal).  

Thus, we are continuously competing and collaborating with the same people. At work, we collaborate with people to successfully complete projects, yet compete with them for recognition, critical projects, raises and promotions.

Question for us to reflect is – how to enable people balance and manage the transition between collaboration and competition? 

Undoubtedly, individuals have to learn to make this continuous transition between competition and collaboration – when to compete and when not to… 

Yet, Team Culture plays  a big role in facilitating the transition, 3 key elements which come into play are:

  • Common Goal – enable every member to genuinely understand and commit to the common goal. Else there is a risk of people falling back to Similar Goals (successfully deliver my part of work, get recognised/ limelight / praise etc.). It’s very easy to mistake similar goals with common goals, it’s important to be watchful of the difference. 
  • Eliminate task hierarchy – treat every job / task as equal. Here’s an example,  think of a time when you had a superb flight experience, who made it possible?  Every touch point matters: check-in, in-flight (food, Stewart interaction, cleanliness, smooth flight despite rough weather), on time arrival, baggage collection. 100s of people – some visible and some invisible- would have contributed to creating the superb experience. Even one missing aspect (unclean seat) would negatively impact the overall experience. Now compare this with several projects in corporate world. Some jobs are pegged higher than others. Yes, based on skills needed, some jobs will be higher paid (a pilot will surely earn more than a baggage handler), However, how the ‘job’ and the ‘person doing the job’ demands same respect and importance. By differently treating certain jobs (and in turn the person doing the job), attention is inadvertently drawn away from common goal.
  • Recognise contribution to common goal – calling out people who have done exceptionally well within the team is important, yet what he or she is recognised for matters a lot – irrespective of the quantum – a praise or reward. When individual excellence is called out, it promotes similar goals (which happens often in teams, albeit unconsciously). A culture of cooperation is created when behaviors / actions taken to enhance common goal are recognised. Again, it’s a fine difference –  but makes a big difference. 

Question to reflect for leaders who are responsible to set the team culture  – which actions of mine are nudging the team members lean towards collaboration and which are pushing towards competition? What should we stop doing? Or continue? Or start? 

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