Collaboration in the Workplace: Is it possible?

By Dr. Larry Pfaff

We often get and give mixed messages in the workplace about collaboration and competition. In America, we take pride in our competitive approach to the marketplace. Competition often helps deliver better products to the consumer at lower prices. At the same time, we all know that competition is often not good within an organization. So, we encourage collaboration whenever possible. How can a collaborative environment be developed within an organization? Is it even possible?

As I work with organizations there is a great deal of talk about collaboration between employees and/or departments, but typically very little occurs. Why is that? First we have to define collaboration and the conditions under which it is most likely to occur. Two or more people are collaborating when each person is working to advance the interests and meet the needs of all parties involved. For example, collaborative bargaining between labor and management means that both sides are trying to enhance the position/conditions of the other side and the organization. Rarely does this occur. Typically, each side is looking out for their own needs at the expense of the other party. This is competition, not collaboration.

So, how do we get more collaboration in the workplace? To do so, we need to understand the necessary conditions that will result in collaboration occurring. First, collaboration is not easy. It takes a great deal of effort and energy from all people involved. Simply put, collaboration is hard work. Because collaboration is difficult, it may not be the best approach in all situations. Second, for collaboration to occur, all people have to be committed to advancing the needs and interests of the other people. They have to set aside their own needs to advance the needs of others. This may not be possible in all cases.

There are two conditions that are necessary for collaboration. First, collaboration can only be expected when efforts are focused on clear, high- stakes issues. We cannot expect people to collaborate on trivial matters. Collaboration takes too much time and energy to be used on simple decisions. If people are told to collaborate on simple issues, they will quickly become frustrated. This often happens when a task force or committee is organized to address a simple matter. Group members quickly believe that they are wasting their time and frustration results.

The second condition necessary for collaboration is the existence of good interpersonal relations between the people collaborating. For collaboration to occur, people must feel comfortable with each other. They must be able to work closely together and trust each other. This level of trust only comes with good interpersonal relations among the parties. Good relationships take time to develop. Using the Management-Labor example mentioned above, one couldn't expect collaboration when there is a history of distrust. Trust must be established first, then collaboration is possible. If there is a poor relationship and no trust, people will quickly revert to a competitive, self- serving approach to any problem.

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