Collaboration Is a Key Skill. So Why Aren’t We Teaching It?

New research finds that despite the importance of collaboration, most organizations fall short when it comes to helping workers build their relationship skills.

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Americans spend more time on work than on all other waking activities combined. Many of these working hours are spent collaborating with colleagues. We think together in meetings. We act together on project teams. We manage up and manage down. Across sectors and levels, collaboration is the name of the game.

In spring 2022, Dev Crasta and I fielded the Workplace Collaboration Survey to better understand collaborative relationships in the modern workplace. The 1,100 people who participated in the survey were employed full-time in the United States; to qualify for inclusion, they had to work with others at least some of the time.

We asked respondents what proportion of their job entails collaborating with others to advance shared goals. Nearly three-quarters (71%) of the sample reported collaborating at least 41% of their work time. This means that in a 40-hour, five-day workweek, people spend an average of 3.2 hours per workday collaborating with others.

Given how much time people spend working and being with others at work, it’s no surprise that relational challenges generate stiff and persistent headwinds in the workplace. In fact, 72% of respondents said they have been involved in at least one workplace collaboration that was “absolutely horrendous.” Such collaborations create operational drag, bust timelines and budgets, trigger managerial headaches, and occupy already overloaded HR staffs.

What is surprising, especially considering these costs to organizations’ bottom lines, is how little professional development people reported receiving on how to build healthy and productive collaborative relationships at work. (See “Professional Development Training Time on Collaboration Skills.”) When asked how much professional development they had received on this front in total, 31% of the respondents said “none.” Six percent said “a few minutes,” which is roughly the length of a TikTok video or the time it would take to read a Dilbert cartoon. An additional 14% said “about an hour,” 23% said “a couple of hours,” and only 26% said they had received substantial development — “more than a couple of hours” — in this critical workplace skill. Yet professional development in how to build collaborative relationships correlates positively with a host of desirable mindsets that benefit both organizations and individuals.

Professional Development’s Untapped Potential

With the caveat that this is correlational data and thus causal links among the variables cannot be known, the pattern of findings points to the likely value of professional development.

As respondents’ professional development increased, so too did their job satisfaction. They also held more positive attitudes toward workplace collaboration and were interested in spending a higher proportion of their work lives engaged in collaboration. In other words, those who had spent more time learning how to build collaborative relationships were more favorably disposed toward deploying those skills in service to the organization.

Beyond an organization’s bottom line, positive workplace relationships matter to individuals’ well-being. Whether respondents’ relationships with their most liked, least liked, or most influential collaborators were being rated, the quality of their collaborative relationships positively predicted job satisfaction, good mental health, and positive attitudes about workplace collaboration. Having even one low-quality collaborative relationship may drive undesirable outcomes, including poor mental health that contributes to burnout, and job dissatisfaction that contributes to turnover.

Given that collaborative relationship quality is important both to individuals and to bottom lines, why don’t organizations provide more opportunities for people to develop collaborative skills? It could be that companies do, in fact, make development opportunities available but that individuals fail to see those opportunities as either available or related to collaboration. Or it could be that such offerings are precluded by underlying assumptions that people pick up relationship skills via osmosis rather than direct training, that they are just naturally “good” or “not good” at relationships, or that these skills cannot be learned. Or perhaps organizational leaders are unsure how best to help individuals and teams develop high-quality collaborative relationships.

Boost Your Team’s Collaboration Skills

Here are six interrelated suggestions for helping individuals, teams, and organizations develop their collaborative capacity.

Frame the conversation. With your teams, first address positive collaborative relationships’ importance to the experiences and well-being of individuals, then highlight the role these relationships play in the organization’s success. If these skills have a clear tie-in to the organization’s stated values, make that resonance explicit. Emphasize that strong relationships make the world of work more positive for all.

Assess thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Rather than working from intuition or hearsay, conduct a survey to directly assess collaborative culture and relationship quality. Ask individuals about their attitudes toward collaboration, their feelings about their “least liked” and “most liked” collaborators, and the specific collaborative behaviors they see (or don’t see) among members of their team.

In addition to providing attitudinal scales and behavioral checklists, include open-ended questions such as:

  • “In what ways have you and your work been affected — positively or negatively — by your collaborators, your collaborative relationships, or the collaborative culture at our organization?”
  • “What three words or phrases best describe the collaborative culture here?”
  • “From your vantage point, in what ways has our organization’s ability to fulfill its mission been affected — positively or negatively — by its collaborative culture?”

Encourage reflection to identify strengths, vulnerabilities, and needs. Invite individual contributors to attend small, facilitated sensemaking conversations to share the assessment’s findings, extract key insights about collaborative strengths and vulnerabilities, and identify specific interventions that could potentially strengthen collaborative relationships and culture within the organization. If you have reason to believe people may be unwilling or unable to speak freely in such sessions, consider providing a video brief of the survey results and then inviting anonymous input on the issues above.

Offer development opportunities. In partnership with your chief people officer, decide whether to offer development opportunities broadly across the organization or to focus resources on particular divisions, teams, or individuals. Development opportunities could include 360-degree reviews for specific people, individual or team coaching, workshops, courses, or audits of how collaborative work is structured, measured, and rewarded. In cases where an individual regularly sours the interpersonal dynamics on their team, consider a performance improvement plan explicitly tied to these non-optional collaboration skills.

Model collaboration skills consistently. In your own work, model a collaborative orientation by, for example, inviting input on early drafts of work or half-formed ideas, giving credit to those who played behind-the-scene roles in a successful outcome, providing responsive and timely input on shared work, cocreating and upholding expectations around engagement during virtual meetings, and chipping in more than required in order to support a colleague who could use a boost.

Integrate the collaboration message broadly. Finally, integrate discussions of collaborative know-how into one-on-ones with team members, in personnel reviews, and in public recognition of accomplishments and growth. A steady drumbeat of attention to the form and function of collaboration within the organization will help establish it as a lived value.

Rinse and Repeat

Like all relationships, collaborative relationships in the workplace require ongoing investment and maintenance. Keep a finger on the pulse of these relationships to increase the likelihood that they will serve the needs of your organization.

Amid the Great Reshuffle, associated turnover, and a tight talent marketplace, companies can no longer afford to disengage from the critical topic of workplace collaboration. Whether they’re looking to reduce employee churn, quickly onboard newcomers to established culture, or leverage the competitive advantage of collaboration, organizational leaders would be wise to focus on helping people build collaboration skills. Strong collaborative relationships are not just nice to have in the workplace. They are essential.

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