Image Source: SecretWorld.

“The Cueva de las Manos, Río Pinturas, contains an exceptional assemblage of cave art, executed between 13,000 and 9,500 years ago. It takes its name (Cave of the Hands) from the stencilled outlines of human hands in the cave, but there are also many depictions of animals, such as guanacos (Lama guanicoe ), still commonly found in the region, as well as hunting scenes. The people responsible for the paintings may have been the ancestors of the historic hunter-gatherer communities of Patagonia found by European settlers in the 19th century.” Source: UNESCO.



Some 200,000 years ago, the Earth was brimming with individuals of the Homo genus, part of the Hominidae family. Weak and helpless, a human child, unlike many other animal infants, requires an entire group’s effort to be raised. Thus, collaboration is a surviving skill that has been intertwined in the very fabric of human society. What’s more, collaboration is an unmistakably quintessential trait of all members of the Homo Sapiens species, part of the Homo genus, one that led the Homo Sapiens to absorb, integrate or replace (according to some opinions) the other Homo species.

Human society was created and is upheld through socially coordinated cooperation. Organizing a state government, building a business, creating new technology, finding a new vaccine, or providing legal services usually requires the efforts of many people chasing a common goal. As seen above, the fact that people can coordinate their actions to develop qualitative innovation and reach human welfare implies that people may have innate psychological mechanisms that facilitate the coordination among individuals. That is why understanding such mechanisms is the cornerstone of human development and evolution.

Working together acts like social glue. Not only does it ensure the rapid achievement of a specific goal, but it also creates a social context that brings people together in a sustained effort to upgrade the status quo.

Collaboration might be a process but collaborating efficiently is a skill that’s honed in time and through practice.

In this article, we’ll touch upon the following ideas:


2.  Teamwork vs Collaboration – Distinctions

Intuitively, both teamwork and collaboration imply a group of people working together towards a common target.

However, while teamwork combines the team members’ individual efforts to complete a particular task, collaboration entails that the individuals complete a certain task or project collectively, as part of a flawless mechanism. Those collaborating work as equals and usually have no leader in completing a project or making decisions- their only guide is the collective zeitgeist. On the other hand, a teamwork endeavor is overseen by a team leader who delegates tasks to each team member to contribute to the team’s final goal.


3.  Why collaborate?

One 2014 Stanford study revealed that people working collaboratively maintained their focus on their task for 64% longer than those working individually on the same job. The study also reported higher levels of engagement, success, and a lower level of fatigue.

The way the social environment affects motivation and performance has long been analyzed in psychology. One 1898 study found that cyclists biked faster in head-to-head races than in time trials, while other subsequent investigations revealed that working in the presence of and observing the performance of others, pooling outcomes and generally synchronizing with different individuals significantly affect people’s effort and motivation.

Collaboration helps people learn from each other, it leads to higher retention rates and job satisfaction, and boosts morale across the company.

Proper leadership, coupled with collaborative teamwork and the right methodology, are the key ingredients for goal achievement. While each component has its benefits, collaboration helps to distribute workload evenly and to delegate tasks appropriately. Undeniably, working as part of a team helps employees feel more engaged and motivated.


4.  Six crucial collaboration skills (and how to foster them)

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It is now time to present some of the skills needed for effective collaboration and the steps to be followed by leaders to not only embellish the conditions for cooperation but also help people refine their abilities.

1)  Open-mindedness

Accepting new ideas and being open to suggestions represent the ultimate bedrock for meaningful collaboration. Each individual can bring something valuable to the table, and many come from cultural and social backgrounds that are so fundamentally different, they affect the very team structure. Because of the cultural underpinnings, an overly polite Asian individual will have difficulties in working with a boldly direct American[1]. Accordingly, for the well-being of both the team and the project, it is for the leader to construe the underlying working methodology and for each individual to make the efforts to smooth off the rough cultural edges.

The advantage of a group effort lays in the outbreak of ideas – unfamiliar, novel, intriguing, and sometimes difficult to grasp – and diversity of approaches.

For natural-born curious people, this environment is somewhat of a dream. For those resistant to new ideas, though, this could be a deal-breaker and, in any event, something burdensome. Evidently, this dichotomy affects the completion of the project. But, given that curiosity and open-mindedness are two main pillars of collaboration, leaders can infuse their team’s internal structure with these characteristics. In one of his Psychology Today articles, Todd Kashdan – Professor at George Mason University, Psychologist, and Public Speaker – suggests:

Begin meetings with a reminder of what type of climate is ideal for courageous and creative ideas to emerge. When ideas are in their infancy, search for what is interesting and ask questions. They can be tough questions, as long as they arise from the desire to gain knowledge (curiosity) as opposed to the need to exert control or dominance (power), or the need to impress others with your ability to outsmart others (social status).”

As a leader, you can also ease new concepts into your team by setting up some benchmarks a given discussion should revolve around. For example, if your team needs a particular solution, make sure that all members know all the parameters and prerequisites this solution should meet before suggestions are put forth, and a final answer is chosen. This way, frustration, and team dysfunctionalities can be eliminated from the very beginning. Formalizing the decision process will gradually hone one critical skill for effective collaboration.

2)  Communication

Successful collaboration also entails thoughtful and straightforward communication. Axiomatically, a team implies a group of people that need to work together through constant communication. However, people communicate differently: while some are natural conversationalists and public speakers, others shy away from publicly uttering their opinions. Fostering clear and meaningful communication leads to optimum work environment and, eventually, to the best outcomes for a team’s projects.

As UNC Executive Development’s Director of Marketing and Public Programs, Kip Kelly explains:

Effective communication requires a substantial level of self-awareness. Employees must understand their own preferences for how they approach a collaborative situation.”

Communication is undeniably important for the success of both the team and the project. But getting introverted people to come forth and present their ideas implies a high degree of leadership and thoughtfulness. To alleviate uncomfortable awkwardness and inefficiency, as a leader, you should:

  • Get your message across and communicate with people using the manner of communication they prefer. For example, use written communication for shy people and verbal communication for extroverts.
  • Allow everyone to express their opinion. Using an intranet platform or simply a collaboration tool that creates a place for people to communicate freely is a great collaboration facilitator.
  • Take your time and try to understand people and their ideas. Whether you discuss in private or in a meeting, never overlook someone’s ideas simply because they have problems articulating them.

3)  Organization

Collaboration can only be successful to the extent that people delegate tasks, share workload, attend to their responsibilities, and organize their activities. Consequently, organization is a vital collaboration skill.

Building on preexisting organization prowess, leaders can train their team members to hone their skills by incorporating management-based tasks into their everyday activity. For example, if your people must regularly coordinate project duties within the team and with each other, they’ll probably learn pretty fast how to organize their time, efforts, activities, and workload so that both themselves and their colleagues benefit from their work.

4)  Long-term thinking

Collaboration can essentially be summarized as working towards a common goal and analyzing how each contribution fits the big picture. That is why vision and long-term thinking are essential. For the people interested in improving their collaboration skills, this entails understanding a project’s scope, objectives, and everyone’s role in it. As for the leaders, they’ll need to explain the “why” of a project. Kip Kelly explains:

The best way to get employees invested in the collaborative process is to give them an opportunity to contribute to a shared vision and purpose. This is about taking the time to articulate the “why” to everyone involved in the collaborative process on a particular project or initiative. Leaders must ensure that all employees understand how their work contributes to the goals of the team and organization and how collaboration will help them meet their goals. When employees understand their broader purpose, they can make more meaningful contributions to their teams.”

5)  Adaptability

Nothing goes as planned in our world because life is multidimensional and highly complex. Collaborative projects are no exception to this rule. Priorities pivot, obstacles hinder progress, and many problems can throw the entire project overboard. All these measure resilience. But only those who can adapt at a moment’s notice will know success.

Adaptability is as crucial of a skill as it is challenging to teach. It mainly comes with practice and experience.  As a leader, you should lead by example and walk your talk, especially when things have gone entirely haywire or some unforeseen issues delay the project. Instead of creating or encouraging havoc across the team, the best option is to keep calm and focus on the next steps. Encourage adaptability by skipping the freak-out stage and brainstorm solutions to the problem.

6)  Debate

Effective collaboration is linked to thoughtful and productive debate within the team. The ground zero prerequisites are that you don’t get overly attached to your arguments and know when to compromise. Debate is frequently the innovation trigger, with good ideas being analyzed and enriched by the entire group and the inept ones tossed away. Thus, the project moves forward. But any good debate is unbiased.

As a leader, you should always ensure a collaborative environment where constructive debate is encouraged and, if necessary, regulated. Just to be clear: inter-team discussions don’t necessarily require old stile combative, face-to-face matches. A discussion or chat channel for people to chip in with ideas will do. The point is to make sure that the debate is in all circumstances productive, polite, and to the point.

Leaders will have to establish a collaborative environment where friendly, constructive debate is encouraged and, if necessary, regulated. This will improve the team members’ ability to come up with constructive criticism, push ideas forward, and basically forge collaboration.


5.  Building collaboration skills in the workplace

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Presumably, each company wants its projects to be successful, and its employees happy. To achieve that, the company must invest its time and resources into honing collaboration skills internally. You won’t need considerable financial efforts for this, but rather a smart and agile management system.

I’ll present below 12 simple ways to build excellent collaboration skills and foster teamwork in the workplace:

  1. Clarify your company goals and vision – habitually define your goals for each project, step, financial year, or period. Your goals should be SMART so that you know what you’re aiming for and how to measure your progress.
  2. Establish clear expectations – for effective team collaboration, a leader is required to make sure everyone knows what’s expected of them, at both individual and team level. Keeping the team updated with the aims and targets required of them can be done face to face in organized meetings as well as remotely, through e-meeting apps.
  3. Clarify roles at both personal and team levels – letting new employees know their roles and responsibilities are paramount for each employee’s well-being and for the group itself. One way of motivating people and reduce frustrations and frictions is by ensuring that solid boundaries have been put in place to define work deliverables and responsibilities. You should avoid burdening people with tasks they did not sign up for.
  4. Build up people’s strengths – use and highlight each individual’s strengths when assigning tasks. This way, you’ll make them feel precious to the group, which in turn motivates them to contribute with their unique assets for the common goal. This requires a great deal of people skills from the leader’s part as the leader must determine where each employee feels he or she could contribute better.
  5. Give employees learning opportunities – allow your employees to grow in their careers. Give them space to learn new skills that benefit them personally while contributing to your team’s success.
  6. Forge a culture of communication – a leader must always ensure all channels of communication are open, be it through online communication methods such as Slack, or via face-to-face meetings. This environment encourages people to participate in conversations, put forth ideas and suggestions, and eliminate the “no stupid questions” policy that severely hampers innovation.
  7. Encourage employees to socialize after work – this strategy must be tackled carefully. You should never force employees into social events they’re not willing to take part into. However, encourage freedom of choice. In fact, the Scandinavians have discovered the benefits of social encounters long ago, and consequently promote the practice of “fika” or coffee break, a ritual aimed at strengthening social bonds. Many companies implement fika (even multinationals) and report that this practice has boosted team morale and productivity.
  8. Encourage transparency – trust is the bedrock of good collaboration. And transparency is one sure way to build trust. Start by being frank and transparent about where your company and team are, about the roadblocks they might come across, and the best ways to overcome them. This will rally your team around a common goal and set of values.
  9. Equip teams with the appropriate tools and software – apart from online communication tools such as Slack, you’ll need management apps (such as Trello for a top-down view over the projects), marketing tools or, document automation tools (especially for law firms). Having role-specific tools makes it easier for people to focus on the tasks at hand.
  10. Invest in automation – repetitive tasks create frustration and a decline in productivity – we lawyers know better. In fact, a recent survey reported that 67% of in-house lawyers feel buried in low-value work. In order to entrust people with meaningful tasks that allow them to exercise their abilities, the leader must invest in tools that automate repetitive work and let the employees work on projects and tasks that bring added value.
  11. Celebrate milestones and victories – boost team morale by praising milestones and wins. People are happier and motivated when their efforts are acknowledged, and leaders can only benefit from such an exercise.
  12. Consider mistakes as feedback – if a project fails or the team falls short of achieving the goals, make it a habit to meet with your team and try to answer these questions:
    • What actions caused this?
    • How can we advance to meet our goal next time?
    • What can I do to help the team achieve its targets?

These questions should not be intended as a way to assign blame. When you talk about failures, make sure to make it clear that you want to see what you can all learn from this.


6.  Conclusion

Fostering collaboration in the workplace is a demanding process, but by all means worth it. The future will seemingly bring new challenges when it comes to organizing work and getting the job done. Progressive companies have already put in place methods of boosting collaboration and engraving it within their teams by using traditional and digital processes. If you want your company to prosper and your workforce to become super-efficient, you should promote a collaborative spirit among the team members and encourage them to push their limits when it comes to cooperation, innovation, and visionary thinking.


How about you? How do you plan on fostering collaboration within your team? Drop us a line and let’s discuss! ?


[1] For more details, I recommend Erin Meyer’s 2016 book, “Culture Map”.


This post is a part of the series called #FutureProofLegal in which we describe the skills and roles/jobs that future legal professionals (lawyers and beyond) shall acquire. To learn more or read other articles in the series go to our #FutureProofLegal page


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