The Value of Collaboration

In my early 20s, I worked in a large office in West Croydon, London, for the Civil Service. Like many offices, particularly before the introduction of hot desking and remote working, the building was divided into different departments, each separated from the next, with two or three to a floor.

We worked on flextime, meaning that many people would plan their days to spend as little time as possible in the office. Lunches were taken at desks, with work shunted to one side and kept strictly to the required minimum of 30 minutes, and people would shoot out of the door as quickly as they could at 3:30 p.m.

I went to the other extreme. When lunchtime came, I would ring around or walk from team to team, gathering up friends and going to the local café or pub for a leisurely lunch. I had never heard of “networking” and had no strategic focus on developing professional relationships. In truth, I think I simply hated my job and welcomed any distraction that would make it more bearable.

But an interesting thing happened — something that I may not have been aware of then but found out years later. Those colleagues went the extra mile to support me in my work when I needed it, while they actively blocked and obstructed my less sociable colleagues when they needed support.

The Modern Challenge

Organizations of all sizes lose valuable competitive yards when their staff do not fully and proactively cooperate with each other. I tend to see much more competition than collaboration within companies and have frequently worked with leaders and team members who have all but written off finding support from colleagues in other departments.

This approach to work is inefficient and counterproductive, but measures taken to encourage collaboration aren’t always effective. Hotdesking was designed partly with the breakdown of silos in mind, yet I’ve worked with companies that introduced hotdesking, only to see people still congregating around the same team members in the same place, thereby recreating the original silos. Now that many people are working remotely, isolation is an even greater challenge.

So, how can we move past this situation and create environments where staff will actively seek to support their colleagues across the organization?

Why Doesn’t Cooperation Occur?

The answer begins with understanding why mutual support across an organization isn’t more common. There seems to be a natural assumption that colleagues will automatically support our requests for help, but the reality is different.

With so many pressing priorities demanding our attention and time, people usually put their own needs first. They will ask, “What’s in it for me?”, and if they can’t find an answer, the colleague’s request will be relegated to a low priority. No amount of loyalty to the organization will change that reality.

The only motivation people experience to support their colleagues comes either when the request directly impacts their own performance and objectives or when they like the person who asked them for help. The latter drives a need to move away from internal competition and toward a focus on developing relationships internally.

Training That Builds a Culture of Relationships

In most organizations, the expectation is that relationship-building and networking is the job of the management team, and everybody else should focus on technical delivery. The possible exception is the sales team but, I still often see sales teams where the director has the network, and the team relies on him or her to make introductions while pursuing less effective approaches to lead generation themselves.

The development of a relationship culture across an organization, at all levels, leads to more efficient and effective working practices, with sharing and collaboration occurring frequently and naturally. To reach this stage, it has to start from the top and flow throughout the organization. Training, beginning with onboarding programs, are a perfect opportunity to encourage employees to develop relationships across the organization. They can be backed up by buddy and mentoring programs that connect people across different departments and lines of business.

Mastermind groups or action learning teams that bring together people from different roles and disciplines raise awareness among those people of the pressures and priorities faced by colleagues and their impact on the performance of the business as a whole, all while helping to develop trusted bonds that lead to strong relationships.

Extending the Learning

Organizations can easily expand all of these interventions beyond the training room by encouraging participants to remain in their buddy groups and action learning teams moving forward, maintaining those strong ties. Consider how you can implement and encourage the use of technology, such as internal social networks and databases of networks to encourage conversation; the sharing of challenges; requests for ideas and information; and the ability to “connect the dots” where different parts of the organization are talking to the same clients, suppliers or key influencers.

In addition, review your incentive and bonus systems, exploring just how much internal competition they drive and how healthy that competition really is for the business. Ensure that such schemes recognize how people contribute to the success of the organization as a whole, particularly to projects they are not directly responsible for.

It takes work, and there will be cynicism and pushback; people don’t change their natural behavior just because you put them in action learning teams or introduce an internal social network. But if you do it right, your organization will be more efficient and more innovative and should enjoy greater growth as cross-referrals flourish. It’s worth investing time and effort in building a strong relationship culture so that your organization can grow and your people enjoy working there.