How to Encourage a Culture of Collaboration (and Why It’s a Good Idea)

action 2277292 1920

On any given day in your workplace, are employees heads-down, working quietly and independently on their own, individual tasks? Or are they working in teams, sharing ideas, strategies, and workloads?

While the latter certainly has its time and place research shows that employees in collaborative workplaces are more productive, more motivated, and produce higher quality work. In fact, a recent study from i4cp and Babson College shows that high-performance organizations are 5.5 times more likely than others to emphasize collaboration. And the benefits apply for informal collaboration, too—when, whether they’re really working together or not, employees feel as though they can reach out to one another for support: a Stanford university study found that the very perception of working collectively boosted performance.

So what drives that perception of collaboration? According to a Harvard Business Review article by The Happiness Track author Emma Seppälä, a culture of positive practices—such as caring for and maintaining responsibility for colleagues as friends, supporting one another, avoiding blame and forgiving mistakes, inspiring, one another, respecting one another, and emphasizing the meaningfulness of the work—contribute to a collaborative culture that improves employee engagement, resilience, productivity, and loyalty.

That’s all well and good, and many of those “positive practices” seem like a given. But as anyone who’s spent time in a more solitary, siloed workplace can testify, building a collaborative, supportive culture is much easier said than done.

As with so many components of corporate culture, the emphasis on collaboration has to come from the top. When employees see leaders fostering a teamwork-oriented culture, it will start to trickle down throughout the organization.

So, as a leader looking to influence company culture, where do you start?

Like any other key leadership characteristic, fostering a culture of collaboration starts with communication.

When it comes to collaboration, leaders can put policies in place and send memos and create new team structures all they want. But if they’re not demonstrating that emphasis on teamwork, themselves, all of those mandates will fall flat.

But when leaders make a concerted effort to start modelling collaboration not just in what they talk about but in the way they communicate, employees will buy in, as well.

What does collaborative communication look like?

What You Say: Inclusive Language

Let’s start with the verbal communication: what leaders say. Inclusive language, or language that fosters collaboration, references group cohesiveness. It shows that the people in the room are unified, assuring team members that the message being communicated belongs as much to them as to anyone else.

For a deep dive into what inclusive language looks like, we invite you to download our white paper, Inclusion: The New Leadership Imperative. But for an overview, take a look at this chart, which includes a few phrases you might hear in a team meeting. We’ve written them out in two different ways: once with inclusive language and once without.

Non-Inclusive Inclusive
I am excited to celebrate many great achievements from the last quarter.” We’ve made many great achievements in the last quarter, and we should all be excited to celebrate.”
“The manpower in this organization is just astounding.” “The talent you all bring to this organization is just astounding.”
Some of you will be too young to remember this, but…” “There was a time when…”

Though none of the phrases in the first column is explicitly, intentionally exclusive, each alienates certain members of the audience. In the first, the speaker appears to be keeping the credit (and the celebration) for herself. In the second, the use of the common term “manpower” subconsciously excludes women. In the third, the speaker implies that the following story won’t be relevant to anyone under a certain age, inviting younger audience members to tune out. But small modifications to each phrase make them inclusive of everyone listening—and increase the chances the entire team will remain engaged with and feel ownership of the speaker’s message.

How You Say It: Collaborative Body Language

Have you ever been making an important point in a meeting or conversation and realized the person you’re speaking with is completely uninterested? How could you tell? Perhaps he had his arms and legs crossed, his torso tilted away. He was likely looking at a screen or into space rather than at you. And even though he wasn’t doing any talking, his message was loud and clear: he didn’t value what you had to say. Or have you watched a speaker give a presentation with her arms crossed over her chest and eyes down or trained on the PowerPoint rather than the audience. Again, regardless of the words she says, the message is “I don’t want to be here.”

If you’ve been there, you know collaborative communication isn’t just about the words you say. Whether you’re speaking or listening—in a presentation or a one-on-one conversation—the fact is that  what you communicate with your body language is just important in setting an example as the words you say.

So if you’re looking to build a culture of collaboration, pay careful attention to your body language. Are you coming off as openminded or closed off? Social or unfriendly? When you use warm, open body language with team members, you’ll start to build an environment that supports teamwork and collaboration.

Start with markers of active listening, including a genuine smile, eye contact, and regular head nods that indicate you’re following—and interested in hearing—what others are saying. Additionally, be sure to uncross your legs and keep your arms comfortably by your sides rather than folded across your chest or propped on your hips.

Finally, keep in mind the power of mirroring. When two people are connecting in a conversation, they often start to subconsciously mimic one another’s body language in a kind of alignment that fosters closeness and trust. And while coming on too strong can be a turnoff, synchronizing your body language with your team members’ (to the extent that you can do so authentically), this can help send the message that you’re connected, engaged, and open to collaboration.

Fostering collaboration among employees is an important goal for any leader looking to change the corporate culture for the better. But as the leader, it starts with you. Once you’ve made collaboration your mission, be sure to model it in the way you communicate—verbally and nonverbally—with every member of the team.