Collaboration is Broken. Here are 5 Ways to Fix It

Collaboration is inherent to the human experience. Humans are social creatures, so working with others—sharing ideas, swapping suggestions and critiques, getting inspired by one another—is a natural tendency and the impetus for virtually every great invention, innovation, and improvement to date. But here’s the catch: with collaboration comes some insidious group dynamics, including cognitive biases, groupthink, loud voices, and fear.


In this era of isolation, digital collaboration is more important to businesses than ever. So how do we bypass our worst instincts and practice better collaboration at work? Here are five strategies you can try.


1. Establish communication best practices.

Everyone communicates differently, and now that all communication is digital, the chances of miscommunication are even higher than before. To ensure everyone is on the same page, team leaders must set clear expectations for sending, responding to, and acting on messages, whether those come in the form of an email, a DM, or a verbal request.

Best practices can include leaving responses in the same place a question was asked (for example, if someone asks a question in a Google Doc comment, don’t DM them on Slack with an answer) and listing all daily tasks in a project management program like Asana, even if some team members keep physical to-do lists or track their duties elsewhere. Attaching qualifiers to messages can also be helpful: The pharmaceutical company Merck has implemented acronyms like “4HR,” signaling a four-hour response expectation, and “NNTR,” meaning “no need to respond.” This clearly conveys a sense (or lack) of urgency and ensures everyone gets the information they need when they need it.


2. Practice giving (and receiving) regular feedback.

Finding the sweet spot between micromanaging and letting issues fester can be difficult. A good practice is to give feedback once you’ve seen an issue occur three times. That way, you won’t need to set up an ominous meeting just to relay a small piece of constructive criticism, and the issue will be resolved as quickly as possible. 

Additionally, Dr. Ethan Burris, a professor of management at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, studies the concept of employee voice, and his research reveals two invaluable tips for giving and receiving feedback. To receive regular feedback, most team members need more than an “open door policy” to actually speak up of their own volition. Leaders have to ask for it explicitly. To give feedback that will be well-received by a higher-up, Burris explains that how you frame the feedback must complement the manager’s personality. If the manager jumps at every new opportunity, frame the suggestion as “If we do this, this positive thing will happen.” Contrarily, if the manager is risk-averse, frame the suggestion as “If we don’t do this, this negative thing will happen.”


3. Embrace asynchronous collaboration.

To believe that remote work is the same as working from the office, only in a different building, is frankly naïve. Working from home comes with a plethora of new distractions and limitations, but it also presents new opportunities. Some people work better at certain times of the day, some people are caring for children or others, some people need to take a walk to find inspiration for creative work. Don’t fight the idiosyncrasies, embrace them! Invest in tools that support asynchronous work as soon as you can, and watch your team members surface more great ideas than they ever did in the conference room.  


4. Keep meetings small.

If there are too many people in the room, focus and motivation seem to evaporate into thin air. Senior team members dominate the conversation, introverts go unnoticed, and some people continue working on other projects and leave the meeting wondering, “What were we talking about for the last hour?” A meeting with fewer people creates healthy social pressure for each individual to make substantive contributions while also diminishing the fear associated with large public forums. That way, leaders can take full advantage of the true cognitive diversity of their team, which is proven to help leaders make better decisions and ultimately increase profitability.

So how many people do you invite? Different limits works well for different teams, but Paul Axtell, author of Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations, suggests keeping meetings to seven people at the most.


5. Set goals together.

One big downside of remote work is that team members are more likely to get left out of goal-setting or decision-making conversations. One study found that more than 50% of remote workers are regularly excluded from important meetings or brainstorming sessions, and another study revealed that around 57% of employees feel that their work performance would improve if they understood their company’s direction or strategies more thoroughly.

Your team members need to know the “why” behind big decisions—their performance depends on it. Take a moment before you make decisions to ensure that all the key players are in the loop and have a chance to voice their feedback before you take action. And remember: Research proves that cognitive diversity leads to innovation and better decisions, which leads to higher revenue and happier customers.