Collaboration draws on differences to reach a better outcome than working solo

Teams that act before thinking often run away with ideas that don’t stand the test of time

When it comes to teamwork, true collaboration is harder than we tend to think. It is also is a richly emotional business. If you find yourself ruminating about a work issue chances are it will be human-sized, interpersonal or communication-related.

Collaboration relies on our social and emotional intelligence, our capacities for communicating, co-ordinating, negotiating, problem-solving, decision-making, conflict-handling.

Above all it relies on listening and taking each other in. We think of it as natural, but it is one of the most complex things we do.

The great news is that these are all skills we can work on. Here are some tips from contemporary research into organisation behaviour that will help you to be a better collaborator.


Know what kind of collaborator you are.

My good friend and colleague Tara Collins once told me her ambition was to walk down every street in the world and meet as many people as she could. Tara's curiosity about people is spontaneous, and totally authentic. It also tells you something about her: Tara is very much an extrovert.

Extroverts are energised by the company of others. They are strong mixers and can be great at bringing people together and uniting them around a shared feeling or idea. At their best, like Tara, this is rooted in an other-orientation, thriving on “we” and the possibilities of togetherness.

Yet, as writer Susan Cain has highlighted in her book Quiet, as many as half of us reside on the other side of the spectrum – more naturally introverted.

Introverts are energised by solitude and one-to-one discussions. As an introvert it may be that you write great reflective follow-up notes, or encourage silent idea-generation time, or bring pause for thought that stops suboptimal brainstorming or groupthink.

The trick, whatever your style, is to work out who you are, what roles you can best serve, and talk with your collaborators about how you work best. Play to your strengths; remembering that all of them are needed.

Embrace differences.

We tend to bond through similarities, but as zeitgeist comedian Hannah Gadsby notes: "Difference is a teacher." Perhaps one person is strong on passion and vision, another maybe has an eye for detail, is good at asking questions or finding resources, at bringing everyone in, keeping pace, or keeping the team on track. Like a rugby team or an improv troupe, the real art is how we recognise and navigate the spaces between us.

Know why you do it.

Collaboration is not just about more hands on deck, or equal-in, equal-out. The real opportunity is synergy, drawing on differences to reach a bigger and better outcome than working solo.

Ideally your collaborators bring a variety of experience resulting in more ways of thinking about the issue, and greater creativity, energy and scope for the task.

Underlying this is a very simple but powerful idea: interdependence. Like the Irish tradition of “meitheal” – getting together to work with each other is about mutuality and community. It means taking the initiative to support other people’s strengths, balancing weaknesses and filling in the gaps. We need each other for what we lack, and stay for what more can be achieved better together.

Invest in the relationships.

Teamwork is relational and requires getting to know each other and building foundations that allow you to trust or disagree safely. Lots of organisations and events use icebreakers or team-building exercises, but there is nothing as valuable as shared experiences and doing something real.

Slow down and create some space for your team. Invite people over to yours to cook dinner together. Do something a little unexpected where you get to relate rather than just focus on the task. The more you invest here, the better the foundations you build.

Hunt down assumptions

Many organisations put time into systems for collaboration, from Belbin team roles to project management or Agile. This can helpfully create a team “language” and build shared understanding. Keep in mind the obstacle is not difference but assumptions.

Often new forming teams dive into work, partly to avoid the anxiety of uncertainty and the painfulness of thinking, and partly for the reward of getting things done. However, teams that act before thinking often run away with ideas that don’t stand the test of time.

Use tools

Digital collaboration, such as cloud-based file storage solutions like Google Drive, help to share project materials in a single space, edit documents concurrently, poll for meeting times, or hold virtual meetings tools like Skype or Zoom. Project apps like Slack are worth exploring. While simple is often best, and email and messaging groups do the trick, pay attention to where technology is efficient and where it is not.

Technology can get us into difficulties as we read into silences, intrude on other’s rest times, or assume messages have been understood that have not. If you notice that you are hiding in technology, or start experiencing communications breakdown, call it out quickly. Pick up the phone or get together in real time to talk it out.

Don’t stop believing

Notice that while you are doing all this you are also building your capacity to read situations and people. Collaboration is a different kind of skill, and working on it is a very effective way of stretching and building all your key business skills.

So, whether you are an extrovert or an introvert, be a bit more like Tara. Bring your curiosity. Believe in people. Imagine all you can learn from and about them. Know that you will never get to learn more about yourself than through working with others.

Maeve Houlihan is associate professor in management (organisational behaviour and work) and associate dean of the UCD College of Business and director of UCD Lochlann Quinn School of Business