The 9 Keys to Highly Collaborative Workplace Cultures

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Apr 7, 2015

Work harder. Dress for success. Land the next big promotion. And whatever you do — make sure you win!

Widely regarded as a universal leadership and business asset, competitiveness is being re-evaluated in light of new research that may prove it does organizations and individuals more harm than good.

I recently attended the C-Suite Network Conference, and was completely intrigued by Margaret Heffernan’s presentation on the topic of competition, which was based on her book, A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better than the Competition.

The downside of competiveness

Heffernan presented a myriad of research and has drawn some surprising conclusions. Most notably, she talked about how competitiveness often backfires, producing extremely harmful side effects – increased stress, rising levels of corporate fraud and breeches in ethics, lack of teamwork, and elevated business risk.

It seems that the competitive landscape of modern business has damaged our ability to work together.

With workforces comprised of employees and former students who’ve been trained to “succeed at all costs,” collaboration and helping our colleagues are becoming remnants of a bygone era. Hyper-competitiveness and stacked ranking have caused us to see business as a zero sum game and view colleagues as rivals in our career path.

With so many leaders focused on innovation and growth, these findings could have very damaging consequences for businesses worldwide. After all, innovation requires risk taking and sharing half-formed creative new ideas.

Inclusion, social connection & helpfulness is key

If employees are reluctant to offer ideas until they’re fully-formed for fear that it will be damaging to their reputation or resist offering suggestions to improve a rival’s project, problem solving is stifled and innovation is doomed.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Heffernan shared that “helpfulness” was the one characteristic that made teams uniquely successful. Empathy, social connection, and everyone being expected to contribute to a result were repeatedly found to be significant factors when researchers studied teams who achieved maximum capacity.

Problem solving and innovation occurred (and happened much faster) when team members shared information, helped each other work through challenges, gave credit where it was due, and involved teammates across departments in discovering solutions.

Characteristics of collaborative cultures

So how do we create the conditions for employees to collaborate and grow? Heffernan shared the following characteristics of organizations that are pioneering better ways to create great products, build enduring businesses, and grow relationships.

  1. They’re flat organizations who get and give respect and power because it’s earned – leaders are leaders because others choose to follow them.
  2. They are noisy with debate.
  3. Mistakes are seen as learnings, rather than shameful errors.
  4. Intense listening and questioning occurs that opens up discussions and idea generation.
  5. Every decision is seen as a “hypothesis” that will evolve without judgment as new information is learned.
  6. They are fluid and loose organizations who liberate talent across the company.
  7. Leaders get employees to work together across silos to build social capital.
  8. There’s a profound understanding that everyone needs each other and no one’s talent is to be wasted.
  9. They believe no one wins unless everybody wins.

We can create amazing new products and solve difficult business problems if we create collaborative cultures and celebrate those who give generously of their wisdom and talents to the organization as a whole.

Heffernan is helping us discover ways of working that genuinely foster creativity, spark innovation, reinforce our social fabric, and feel so much better than “winning at all costs.”

The post originally appeared in a somewhat different form on

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