What Great Bosses Know about Breaking Down Barriers to Collaboration

A collaborative workplace is the goal of managers and employees alike. Who doesn’t want to work in a culture where people share information and resources, understand and appreciate each others’ responsibilities, and help each other succeed?

We may want it. But we don’t always get it. Collaboration is challenging. Employees have to make a commitment to cooperation, and bosses, as I’ve written before, must remove the institutional barriers that get in its way. Let’s keep attacking the four big barriers bosses must break down.

The Distance Barrier

When employees work in varied places, from different rooms to different cities, the absence of face-to-face contact challenges communication. It sets the table for misunderstandings. People slip off each others’ radar. They have less awareness, appreciation and empathy regarding each others’ workloads, successes or challenges.

Your role as a leader: Reinforce continuing, high-quality communication. Challenge assumptions your staff make about colleagues with whom they have little direct contact. Encourage face to face exchanges and the use of video chats instead of just e-mail. Teach the danger of e-mail misunderstandings. Re-think the geography of your workplace to remove old boundaries between people. Find opportunities to bring folks together, with the goal of preventing problems rather than solving them after the fact.

The Dominance Barrier

If leaders want the staff to work as partners, they can’t turn a blind eye to the perceived or real hierarchies in the workplace, or to employees who lord it over others. Managers can say “we’re all equal here,” but as George Orwell wrote in “Animal Farm,” the reality may be that “some animals are more equal than others.” Organizational cultures produce official and unofficial caste systems among the rank and file. It’s up to bosses to fine tune the picture.

Your role as leader: Take an honest accounting of whether there is an unspoken, understood but possibly unfair power structure among employees. Is it based on tenure, roles and responsibilities, relationships or expertise? Are there people who assume, or have been encouraged to assume, that others are expected to serve their interests, first and foremost? If that’s the way you want it — that’s your call as a boss. But then don’t call it collaboration, which really means mutual support, sometimes even sacrifice, working toward a shared goal.

The Dissonance Barrier

This barrier pops up when bosses pile so many duties on employees that in order to survive, they just hunker down and take care of their own needs. The employer’s messages are contradictory: get all these assignments done in the time frame and to the specifications I demand but also dedicate your time and resources to helping others meet their goals. That dissonance drives people into bunkers. They’re not doing it to be oppositional; they want to help their colleagues, but it’s too risky.

The leader’s role: Keep track of workloads. Understand what it takes to accomplish the tasks you give people. Consider whether some of your own practices contribute to their stress and time challenges. Late notice, poor organization, unclear instructions or priorities — all make work more difficult and workers less likely to be able to reach out to engage with others. If your people have the skill and will to collaborate and it’s not happening, ask for candid feedback about what you can do to remove the dissonance barrier.

The Discomfort Barrier

It can be difficult for employees buddy up with someone they don’t really know and whose skill set is foreign to them. It’s so much easier for workers to stay in their comfort zones, where there’s common vocabulary, tools and knowledge. Left to their own devices, they may shy away from working with those whose expertise makes them feel incompetent or whose work doesn’t seem interesting. Why go through the hassle, just because the boss wants everyone to play nicely together on initiatives?

The leader’s role: You can’t just focus on the product; you have to lead people. That means guiding them to a better understanding and appreciation of each other, their roles and responsibilities. It means finding ways to educate the whole workplace about the contributions of each team. It means rewarding those who span boundaries, network well and help others. It means setting up opportunities for people to build awareness, understanding, empathy and trust.

But hey, what about the employees? Even as bosses remove all possible barriers to collaboration, employees need to do their part as well. Here’s a way to get them in on your plan: Ask them to think about people they work with; people whose jobs differ from theirs. Could they answer the question: “What makes a great day at work for you?”

There’s power in knowing what job success and satisfaction look like to colleagues.

  • What do their bosses expect of them?
  • What professional standards are really meaningful in their specialty area?
  • What personal goals have they set for themselves in the work they do?

Knowledge like this can lead to better communication, conflict resolution and, yes, collaboration.

Are there other barriers to collaboration? You bet. I’ll share one more I think is especially challenging in today’s podcast, “What Great Bosses Know about Breaking Collaboration Barriers.”

Poynter’s “What Great Bosses Know” podcast is sponsored by The City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. Poynter’s leadership and management expert Jill Geisler shares practical information that’s valuable for bosses in newsrooms and everywhere.

You can subscribe to this podcast via RSS or to any of our podcasts on iTunes U.

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