As the professional services industries grow and change, business leaders find themselves needing to strategize and implement fresh, new initiatives to maintain the company’s relevancy and support sustained growth. More often than not, these initiatives require the dreaded “c” word—collaboration. The success of many workplace initiatives rests on the team’s ability to come together to work toward a common goal. But why do so many people, who are seemingly on the same team, tend to freak out when asked to collaborate?
Research indicates that no matter how well you plan out your company’s new initiatives, or how foolproof they may seem on paper, it can be hard to sidestep your team’s natural reactions to collaborating. In the March-April 2019 issue of the Harvard Business Review , Lisa B. Kwan identifies this problem as “The Collaboration Blind Spot.”
As part of her doctoral research, Lisa spent six years researching, monitoring, and interviewing the managers and employees of three global companies where collaborative groups were failing to implement company initiatives. She found that
“Time and again, I came across leaders who were scratching their heads—or pulling their hair out—as they tried to figure out why their initiatives weren’t progressing as planned. Each situation was different, of course. But the roots of the problems can be traced back to the same initial cause. I call it the collaboration blind spot.”
As a business transformation consultant, I have encountered this “blind spot” myself countless times. Individuals across all industries come to me at a loss about how to (a) ensure their new processes gain traction and (b) keep their collaboration efforts running smoothly.
The blind spot is not recognizing that new plans can be perceived as a threat. They cause discomfort among staff , which can disintegrate the team.
Collaboration, by nature, requires a certain forfeiture of autonomy whether that’s in the form of sharing otherwise personal information or ceding some responsibility to other members of the group.
The staff starts to panic, asking themselves, Will the implementation of these new initiatives replace my duties within the company? Will I still maintain enough demonstrable value to be kept on as a member of the team?
The result is a highly guarded team whose discomforts are stopping changes dead in their tracks. Luckily, I have found that a few tweaks to the collaboration process can help accelerate implementation.
1) Involve the Staff in the Decision-Making: Make each staff member feel as if his or her input is valuable  during the planning process. Of course, not all input will be applicable or serve the “greater good”. However, you can sort through the information later, after the input has been collected. When staff members feel valued in planning sessions, they put forth more effort. Their involvement will also give them a personal stake in the project, which increases productivity and the quality of their performance. What was first just a task, handed down by a superior, transforms into something personal they’ll feel responsible for seeing succeed.
2) Address Possible Concerns: Don’t ignore the elephant in the room. The “blind spot” is not an isolated phenomenon. It manifests in different ways in different company cultures, but the root remains the same—fear. By addressing your staff’s concerns out in the open, you take away and assuage some of that fear, putting your staff at ease and positioning them to be successful, collaborating team players rather than guarded, self-retreating individuals.
3) Acknowledge Their Successes: This comes back to making sure your employees feel valued. Check in with your team on a regular basis. Pre-schedule bi-weekly or monthly meetings with the team to show them they have your support. Let them know you have an open-door policy should they encounter a roadblock or come across unforeseen concerns down the road (or appoint a designated staff member with whom they can express their chief concerns between meetings). And when the team works well together, or reaches an important milestone, acknowledging and commending their efforts will positively fuel the momentum.
4) Enlist the Help of a Facilitator: If collaborative efforts are new to your firm, it may be beneficial for you to enlist the help of a facilitator. Having a neutral, business-minded individual that your staff doesn’t feel threatened by may allow them to open up more openly and honestly about their concerns. The more roadblocks you can eliminate up front, the smoother the transition will be.
Recognizing that your team may feel threatened by your proposed changes upfront gives you an opportunity to address (and hopefully eliminate) many of the staff’s concerns before they threaten to stunt your project’s success. When the staff feels comfortable with the new initiatives being implemented, they’ll be more likely to step up and support change with enthusiasm.
Good luck improving your business and creating a collaborative culture!