Collaboration is all the rage in most organisations as the benefits nearly always far outweigh the costs. Teamwork and collaboration between team members on cross-functional projects have yielded great benefits to the vast majority of organisations that have embraced it. Yet at the same time we continually observe a clear pattern of lack of collaboration between managers. So why the seeming contradiction?
To understand what is going on here we need to take a step back and look at what collaboration is and what the benefits and costs are. The definition is simple – a process where two or more people work together to realise a shared goal or goals – so it seems a rational and human thing to do.
The benefits of collaboration at work are well known and talked about frequently:
- Combining the strengths of different people/teams
- More balanced decision making
- Risk sharing
- Savings through shared use of resources
- Knowledge sharing and transfer
- Whole of business approach through combining different perspectives
- Replicating success across different areas
In contrast the costs of collaboration are less talked about, but always incurred:
- Additional time investment that may not justify the outcomes
- Increased complexity in decision making -> takes longer
- Diverting energy away from core tasks
- Added ambiguity around roles and responsibilities
We have probably all keenly felt the impact of the costs at some time in our working career, especially around the added time investments and the diversion of energy away from our core responsibilities. But none of those really explain why we see much less frequent collaboration between managers than at the team level.
From our observations there are three key reasons why managers don’t collaborate:
- Collaboration causes conflict,
- They still act as technicians, and
- It reduces autonomy.
Lets start with the issue of conflict. When we look at the costs of collaboration they all imply increased conflict – around roles, around diverting energy from core tasks and around the need to take others’ viewpoints into account when making decisions. The latter is very poignant in Australia, as we have a preference for consensus based decision making, which is not an effective way to make a decision in most instances.
These are all aggravated at the management level, especially since managers still rarely share KPIs (whereas most teams do). In order to tolerate the additional conflict, we need trust and the ability to accept professional disagreement and engage in robust conversations. Whilst most Australian managers we meet are good at building trust, the flip-side is that they don’t like disagreement (which is detrimental to trust). Yet paradoxically both are required to realise the full benefits of collaboration.
The second point leads us back to our well-rounded leader model. At the team level, collaboration brings technical expertise together. At the management level, collaboration requires parking your technician hat and taking a whole-of-business approach. This is the single biggest developmental opportunity for most managers we meet.
The third reason why managers rarely collaborate is built into any hierarchical system. Moving up the hierarchy increases autonomy whilst collaboration by its very nature decreases autonomy. The majority of people attracted to a senior management career are looking for increased autonomy – so there is a process of self-selection in play that runs counter to promoting collaboration among managers.
Now that we have a better grasp on the reasons for the lack of collaboration between managers, what can be done about it and is it worthwhile?
Whether it is worthwhile or not will depend on the organisational goals. We have come across many organisations where the benefits of collaboration ‘on the ground’ have been exhausted and no further improvements are possible without collaboration between managers. Whenever organisations embark on a large-scale change effort (e.g. new strategy or new culture), collaboration between managers is essential.
In those situations where the benefits are clear-cut and outweigh the costs, organisations need to invest in their managers’ professional development to negate the 3 reasons we outlined for the lack of collaboration.
To overcome the inability to tolerate professional disagreement and to allow robust conversations on a basis of trust and respect, managers need to become emotionally intelligent and resilient. This is not a new idea, but even though we have had emotional intelligence as a topic for 20 years and resilience more recently, not much progress has been made.
This is largely due to the fact that emotional intelligence rarely gets rewarded in line with the effort required to develop it and that training is ineffective for developing emotional intelligence (only coaching works).
The move from technician to commercial acumen and whole-of-business approach used to be the key aim of most corporate mentoring programs, but they went out of fashion with the restructuring in the 80s and early 90s. Mentoring can only be effective if the mentor has the requisite whole-of-business approach and the desire to pass on their knowledge and experience. There is no easy fix for this one. The first step would be to put the evolution from specialist to generalist back on the agenda, as we argued in a previous article.
The solution for the loss of autonomy is more complex. It involves shared KPIs, clear rewards for collaboration (especially for bonuses and other at-risk salary components) and less emphasis on hierarchies. All of these are underway in many organisations already, which much room for improvement.
In addition it would also help to look at how organisations promote their managers and develop talent:
- Is developing emotional intelligence part of the selection process beyond a tick-box approach?
- Is individual professional development through coaching offered at the point when a manager transitions to the level when collaboration becomes essential to the organisations aims?
- Are senior managers role-modelling the desired behaviours?
On current trends – doing more with less resources – collaboration for managers is becoming a must.