The rewards of highly collaborative teams

Not that long ago I was a writer of interesting and engaging educational programmes. Fortunately, that is no longer the case. The programmes that I wrote and shared with a team of teachers were generally well accepted and the feedback offered was always politely positive. I enjoyed writing these programmes but in recent times I have enjoyed even more stepping away from this process and in doing so empowering the team of teachers that I learn with. The programmes that this team produces far exceed the quality I could ever have hoped to produce but more importantly the students are benefiting from their experience of highly engaged and thus engaging teachers.

Such is the power of collaborative teams. Individuals have strengths and can achieve much but a team that is in sync, has clear goals and clarity of purpose will always do more. Strong collaborative teams are ones where each individual is able to achieve at their maximum level. These teams regularly create moments of what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi refers to as ‘Flow’. This feeling that grows out of strong collaborations and is enhanced through social cohesion within teams encourages heightened levels of personal commitment to the team’s goals.

The great challenge is to develop teams that are truly collaborative. This is not a natural state and to assume that because a group of people have been identified as a team that they will function as one is flawed thinking. Collaborative teams do not occur by accident and nor may they be constructed by the traditional methods and philosophies of management. While a a group of loosely affiliated individuals may achieve an acceptable level of ‘group work’ together in which individuals fulfil a function within the group towards a common goal this model falls far short of the ideal.

In seeking to construct teams that are highly collaborative the ability of those charged with leading the team to compellingly communicate the teams purpose is often important but not always essential. Empowering teams to collectively generate a vision of their purpose can be a powerful step in forming cohesive collaborations but is a part of the process not always accessible. How that purpose is achieved however, is always a process best constructed through collaboration. The process of empowering teams in some respects reflects the laws of conservation of energy in physics. The power that is transferred to the team comes from the power that those in positions of leadership surrender.

Dan Pink in his book ‘Drive’ identifies three forces which act to motivate us. Purpose, mastery, choice and not traditional awards are the key according to Pink’s research. Once base needs are taken care of individuals seek opportunities to master skills and concepts gaining tangible benefits from the feelings of success. They seek choice in how they perform their duties and a degree of autonomy in how they spend their time. Clarity of purpose allows them to see the value in what they do and when it is a purpose that connects them with something bigger than themselves, that matters they are more likely to commit. These motivating forces apply equally if not more so to teams.

An individual’s motivation may be imagined as the sum of the influence of the motivating forces acting upon them. Where a meaningful and engaging purpose exists alongside choice and with the possibility to achieve mastery through concerted effort the individual is likely to show high levels of motivation. Within teams the equation is somewhat complicated by the differing perception of the motivating forces that exist between team members. In teams that lack cohesion the differences in perception and the conversations sparked by this perception can influence both individual and collective motivation. The individual who is disengaged and despondent can have a disproportionate influence on team morale. How the team responds to individuals at either end of the motivational spectrum can influence the construction of a highly motivated team of collaborators or result in a group damaged by negativity and disunity.

In teams where collaborations are challenging and unity is lacking it is often the norm to identify those who are deemed to be underperforming or contributing to disunity. This model often fails as it highlights the problems within the team rather than highlighting its strengths. A better approach might be to build on what is positive within the team and seek to increase the occurrence of times where the team functions effectively. Avoiding a deficit model shifts the collective thinking of the team onto its positive attributes, encourages unity around these collective moments of success and shows the way for the group to move forward. This approach sits well with the often overlooked factor of mastery as a motivating force. If the team sees its potential to master the art of collaboration, individuals and the collective are more likely to strive towards this common goal. The danger of the deficit model is that it tells a story of failure over which most individuals have little control or in the case of those who are underperforming little desire to change.

Developed and nurtured with ongoing care and commitment collaborative teams can provide huge benefits. For individuals within them and for the organisations in which they exist the rewards are tangible. More importantly collaborations allow us be a part of something bigger than ourselves and through that to experience heightened levels of fulfilment. Truly collaborative teams are difficult to achieve and sustain but certainly worth the effort.

Written with thanks and appreciation of the team of teachers with which I learn. 

By Nigel Coutts