Why We’re Banning Collaboration

Every year in our office, we ban a word.  In previous iterations, we’ve banned words like ‘millennial’.  The M-word had been used to personify an entire generation and falsely characterise them as homogenous.  To present a set of values as uniquely about them when in fact they are commonly about everyone – a longing for meaning in work, a loyalty to purpose not productivity, a desire to have balance and harmony in life.

I think if you quizzed those aged 25 to 85, they would all want these same things.  In fact, in 2018, Gallup did just that and asked baby boomers, Gen Z, Gen X, and millennials what they look for most in an employer – and their answers were surprisingly similar.  These are universal human conditions.  So ‘millennial’ got banned in our office.

This year, we turn our sights to ‘collaboration’.  Collaboration is thought of as the activity when a diverse team come together with a shared understanding of goals, collectively generating solutions with the result being greater than any one individual could achieve on their own.  A kumbaya of corporate culture.

Post-pandemic, we have come to think of collaboration as the magic ‘why’ that we have been seeking to drive the need to visit the office, the holy grail to bring people back to work.  A sort of necessary and sufficient condition to corporate and personal success.  The unifying theory of the cosmos.  As though collaboration is the solution for the crisis of connection and loneliness we are all feeling.  Come to the office, collaboration will happen, and all will be good again.

To me, it just feels like a lazy shorthand.  We use the term without really understanding what it means, what underpins it, jumping to the conclusion without first having thought through why collaboration matters and if we even need it at all.

Research actually shows that most people would rather work alone, despite the fact that for almost every company, projects require teamwork, and sharing experiences helps individuals innovate and grow.  A recent University of Phoenix study found that 75% of people would rather not work in teams, and more than 70% have worked within teams that they described as dysfunctional.

Collaboration is hard.  Why is something as basic as working together so difficult?  Often there is a lack of clarity about goals, and a conflict between an individual’s goals and those of the team.  Group work requires good leadership, and especially when collaborating across departments or between firms, there may be too many leaders, with the loudest voice in the room filling the role even if he or she is not equipped to lead.  Collaborative sessions can bring out the worst in terms of cognitive biases, systematic patterns of irrational judgement as individuals create and reinforce their own subjective reality, derived from personal perceptions that have become deeply engrained over the years.

Collaboration is a sophisticated skill.  It does not spring on its own.  It requires individual confidence.  And for this, we need to focus on psychological safety.  Empathy.  Emotional intelligence.  Curiosity.  Calm, safety, and equanimity.  Sensitive engagement and mutual respect.  We need to reward cooperation over competition.  To reduce ego friction by making sure everyone involved equally shares in the value of the end goal and is willing to compromise their ego to get there.

Importantly, collaboration is not about consensus; it is more about diverging perspectives.  It’s how we bring start-up thinking to established organisations.  And it can be the catalyst for significant personal and corporate growth.

The office – the stage on which this drama plays out – has a huge role to play in creating this kind of environment, a space that fosters these values.  Whether in person or online, synchronous or asynchronous, where we interact has a tremendous influence on how we interact.  We need to create a physical environment that cultivates the psychological outcomes we are after.

Great work – and great workspaces – are not at all about ‘collaboration’.  They are about all that other stuff that makes an organisation thrive, collaboration or not.



This article originally appeared in Property Week.