Team Building: Leaders Make It Safe to Collaborate

In order for your staff to effectively collaborate, you have to define what it means to help. Here's why.

What does it mean to help?

Ronald Reagan used to have fun with the statement, "The most dangerous words in the English language are 'I'm with the government and I'm here to help.'" It seldom failed to get a laugh. But in reality the issue of help, or specifically how we help, is no laughing matter.

So often executives will ask their teams to collaborate more closely with one another. In cross-functional teams this means the marketing person has permission to offer advice to someone in logistics. Or a finance exec can weigh in on an engineering issue. Interdisciplinary collaboration is much talked about but too often it does not work because managers are not certain how to act.

An executive who attended a program I taught made this clearer to me. His questions focused on: How can I ask a question of a colleague without showing him or her up? And if I make a comment about a colleague's work, do I come across as a know-it-all or self-promoter?

Tough questions indeed and they get to the heart of why colleagues sometimes hold back. The proper response is for leaders to make it safe for staffers to collaborate.

Here are some suggestions:

Define help.

What does it mean to offer help? The first step is to define what help is not: one-upmanship. The person asking for help must be given assurance that he will be listened to. The person giving help will know that he will not be asked to provide extra manpower, unless the boss says to. Help therefore may be as simple as asking a clarifying question or as detailed as assigning a work team to solve a problem.

Define the lingua franca.

High performance teams also develop their own rules, or language. They know what it means to listen and to collaborate. Collaboration means sharing and so members do not view it as an opportunity to power grab or micromanage a colleague.

Defining what it means to help extends to meetings, particularly since we spend so much in them.

Define the purpose of collaborative meetings.

All meetings are not created equally. Some may be procedural (to get updates) and others may be strategic (focused on long-term issues). Mixing these two intentions inevitably overruns the deliberative process in favor of pushing through agenda items. One thing I have observed is that managers limit procedural meetings to quick get-togethers (where everyone stands) by putting them first in memoranda form for email distribution. Consider the strategic meeting as the opportunity to deliberate.

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