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  • Writer's picturelindsayannkohler

The psychology of effective collaboration

Updated: May 10, 2020

This was originally published on my LinkedIn on April 15, 2020.

When I originally set out to write this piece, the current COVID-19 crisis had not yet affected workplaces. Now, with so many of us working remotely as offices around the world succumb to the lockdown, we can see a new twist to the psychology of collaboration.

Research has shown that people are 2.5 times more likely to perceive incompetence, mistrust, poor decision-making, lack of meeting deadlines and worse working behaviours with their virtual teammates than those colleagues who are located onsite with them[i]. It’s not a helpful perception at a time where we have little option but to embrace digital workplaces.

But collaboration remains a powerful galvaniser and now, more than ever, working together towards shared goals can help motivate us through a period of uncertainty. There are many contextual factors that can impact collaboration, such as the type of tasks the team is performing or the environment or culture the team is operating in[ii]. But there are core principles that help teams reach a place of effective collaboration, no matter the situation. While you might have to work a bit differently to achieve these aims if you now have a large remote workforce, the end goal is still the same. It’s important to remember that collaboration is a process, not a static relationship structure. It’s something we actively choose to partake in to achieve an agreed outcome.

So, what should we keep in mind when it comes to fostering effective collaboration?

Build trust. People have to trust each other, or it will never work. It’s not just about honesty, it’s about commitment. Will they get done what they say they’ll get done? Will they handle what they promise to deliver? It may sound trite but team trust building at the onset of a project can set the tone for better collaboration in the longer term.

Appoint a strong leader.  Someone needs to be in charge of influencing others to agree upon what needs to be done, and how to go about doing it. This person will take on the unenviable task of managing conflict, but they also get to play the role of motivator and encourager. Think about the personalities on your team, and who is best suited for this leadership role given the particular task.

Don’t assume. It’s critical not to jump to conclusions about what your teammates are or aren’t doing; or their intentions and motivations. It’s easy for us to assume that any perceived wrongdoing on someone’s part is due to an innate character flaw rather than the situation. This is known as ‘The Fundamental Attribution Error’. Before making erroneous assumptions, remind yourself that your colleague probably has the best of intentions in mind, and pick up the phone to clarify any misunderstanding in the making.

Games can be wonderful tools to build cooperation. It might seem paradoxical, as the idea of engaging in a game automaticall brings to mind competition. But when we compete within a fixed set of rules, we’re actually cooperating with our opponent toward the goal of winning. We each hope we’ll win, but we must keep to the rules, which requires mutual cooperation – a close sibling of collaboration. When we cooperate toward a common goal, we also tend to like each other more, so friendly games within a project team can be a great way to build collaboration. 

Ensure you have the right team in place. The selection of the “right” group members depends on the task. In some cases, the right mix of diverse backgrounds and experiences is required. If that’s the case, watch for the tendency for those teams to form “ingroups” and “outgroups[iii].” A little diversity and Inclusion training at the start of the project might be a welcome addition to the process. In other cases, such as if the collaborative work is around manual labour, selecting the right team could be more about getting the right physical characteristics in place. Also consider personality traits, such as willingness to collaborate, which greatly impact success rates.

Have an honest conversation about pulling one’s weight. Nothing rips apart collaboration faster than one person not contributing (think about the dreaded university group project). Don’t let that behaviour slide. Collaboration requires reciprocation. While it doesn’t have to be equal contributions from all parties, all do need to contribute sufficiently toward the end goal. Therefore, discuss openly why deadlines aren’t getting met or quality isn’t high. Perhaps someone needs help prioritising or need to be assigned a different role that’s better suited for their strengths.

Find a prime time. Teams should try to coordinate certain times of “high responsiveness” with each other to help recreate in-person collaboration’s productivity and success. Research has shown that teams that communicate in rapid bursts with immediate responses are more productive than those who have delayed feedback due to email response times or work being coordinated among multiple threads[iv].

Build spaces. Where before, we could use physical spaces to encourage collaboration, such as breakout areas and dedicated meeting rooms, we need to be a little more creative in how we ring fence space for collaborative planning and thinking. Think about creating a dedicated brainstorm channel, away from other communication spaces for this purpose. 

The benefits of building a more collaborative workplace include more innovation, a higher level of engagement and a deeper sense of belonging. The current restrictions of COVID-19 are forcing more creative ways to collaborate and communicate, but understanding the building blocks of collaboration best practices can help you to better support your team.

[i] Grenny, J. & Maxwell, D. (2016). “Costly Conversations: Why the Way Employees Communicate Will Make or Break Your Bottom Line.” Retrieved online.

[ii] Bedwell, W., Wildman, J., Diazgranados, D., Salazar, M., Kramer, W., & Salas, E. (2012). Collaboration at work: An integrative multilevel conceptualization. Human Resource Management Review, 22(2), 128-145.

[iii] Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin, & S.Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations. Monterey, CA: Brooks-Cole.

[iv] Riedl, C. & Woolley, A. (2016). Teams vs. Crowds: A Field Test of the Relative Contribution of Incentives, Member Ability, and Emergent Collaboration to Crowd-Based Problem Solving Performance. Academy of Management Discoveries, 3(4), 382-403

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