Collaborative thinking is the key to successful teamwork. And collaboration has been shown to correlate with higher revenues and market share. Now that workplaces are re-setting post-pandemic, how does collaboration function? After the rapid shift to remote and hybrid working, it’s been difficult for organisations to decide where, how, and in what way their people work together best.

The future skills that leaders now depend on include the ability to overcome the demands of remote and hybrid working. While these include common issues associated with everyday digital challenges, at a more fundamental level they touch on questions about how best to develop team cohesion and collaboration.

What is collaboration in the workplace?

Effective collaboration means involving the right people at the right times and in the right ways, to get the best results. We know what poor collaboration looks like. Most of us can recall being involved on a project where there were lots of meetings and sharing of progress, when it would have been better to have one person do the task, consulting regularly but briefly with other relevant people. Likewise, we can all remember a time where one person went racing off on their own and produced something that wasn’t fit for purpose because they hadn’t involved others.

For effective collaboration involving the right people in the right ways, we need to define what’s ‘right’ in each case. So, let’s take these one at a time.

What’s the best way to approach collaborative thinking?

Encourage collaborative thinking by putting together a team who have the right skills and knowledge. In addition, you need to involve people who have relevant interests – those who will be affected by what the team is doing. ‘Relevant interests’ needs to be interpreted widely here. For example you might need to make your group balanced and diverse to avoid ‘groupthink’ or the domination of one subset of employees over decision-making.

The process of collaborative thinking

The ‘right’ times, and timings, for meetings are crucial. Everyone prefers a snappy, focused session. Avoid gathering everyone every time by default. Instead, ask who could happily be left out of this meeting, or brought up to speed later. Tightly-focused mini-meetings or calls will help you reserve the main meeting for the things that need everyone. Arrange for some of the team to join later or leave early so that they’re only in attendance when they gain, or give, high value. Then hopefully the meetings will be efficient, but not rushed.

Those last two considerations – who is in the team, and when they meet – are not always fully under your control. In practice, few of us get to hand-pick our own teams; they are inherited, or they are a default consequence of the roles held in the organisation. This makes the way we communicate even more important, because it may be the one thing we can control.

There are two main components to collaborative thinking. The first is in the formation of the group: the atmosphere, mindset and energy of the space – does it feel inclusive, safe, collaborative, dynamic, fun…or none of these things? The second is the interaction techniques and habits. These need to be humane, positive and constructive.

What is psychological safety?

A psychologically safe space is a social/professional situation where no-one experiences, or fears, a threat. By ‘threats’ we don’t just mean angry or aggressive behaviour. While aggression could be the problem, it’s far more likely that the threat people anticipate is of embarrassment, criticism, rejection, exclusion, and so on. When the space is not psychologically safe, people are thinking things like:

  • I might sound stupid if I ask my question
  • They won’t want to hear what I think
  • I shouldn’t say my idea unless it’s right
  • That felt like an attack on me (or against something important to me)
  • They just dismissed what I said
  • I said exactly that a minute ago but everyone ignored it
  • They’re not used to people like me
  • I can’t put my finger on why I feel uncomfortable here

How do we create psychological safety?

Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately: we don’t create psychological safety by saying ‘this is a safe space’. Declaring your intention to have a safe space may well be a key part of your way of setting up, but what makes the space safe is people’s experience of it. That means that you have to demonstrate that the anxieties above are untrue. Here are some ways of doing that. If you’re running the meeting (and someone should be!) ensure that others do this, not just you:

  • Welcome questions at all times, even if they’re not convenient. Give a quick ‘for now’ answer if you can’t stop to answer in full.
  • You do want to hear what people think. Repeat to them something they said that is useful to know – sometimes it’s just a case of “Thanks, it’s useful to know that’s what you’re thinking.”
  • It’s not bad to be wrong. If people haven’t grasped something, demonstrate a ‘growth mindset’: this is the perfect opportunity to quickly expand their understanding. If people didn’t speak up for fear of being wrong, they’d stay wrong.
  • Don’t be defensive if someone raises an issue with your behaviour. We can all be accidentally thoughtless or dismissive. It’s vital that we don’t become defensive if we find that comments have misfired. It’s important to take responsibility for the effects of your words – by saying you realise you made someone uncomfortable and you will try not to do that again.
  • Don’t dismiss or judge when you disagree. Acknowledge the things that make sense in someone’s comments and then say why you think there is a better way of looking at it, or provide the fact that you think they might have been missing.
  • Explicitly link what is said to what other people have said – actively build the consensus and show the links between points of view. A series of unrelated observations or opinions is not a constructive discussion.
  • Show curiosity in people. It’s not always easy to do this without being intrusive so be cautiously curious and don’t pressurise or take offence if people evade your question. Likewise don’t turn someone into a representative of their gender, race, etc. unless they are happy to take that role in this context.
  • People can’t ‘include themselves’ – the group does it as a whole. If someone doesn’t seem vocal or present, don’t take it as a failing in them; take it as a sign that the group hasn’t succeeded in assimilating them and find ways to do that.

When people are thinking collaboratively, they say things like this to each other:

  • What shall we talk about first?
  • I thought you’d be a good person to ask about this.
  • Can you say more? I’m not clear why you think that.
  • Tell me if I have this right. I think what you’re saying is…
  • [Name], we haven’t heard from you on this. Is there anything you can add?
  • My initial reaction to that is to disagree and it’s because…
  • OK, there’s some agreement on that, but is there anything we might have missed?
  • Who has an idea where to take this next?
  • OK, that’s one option, what are the others?
  • I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts and questions now.
  • OK, you persuaded me on that point.

With the rise of remote working and greater reliance on digital communication, leaders can’t just hope for the best with collaboration. They need to actively think collaboratively, creating the right patterns of interaction with skilful, strategic communications.

And while technique is part of it, there’s no need to get too technical about it. Most of the gains are made by taking more time and giving our natural humanity a chance to flourish.

How to develop collaborative thinking 

The Working Voices courses on Agile Thinking can help you develop your future skills in critical thinking, offering practical techniques that will help you improve decision-making, create opportunities and solve problems.

Specifically, in our Collaborative Thinking course, we look at the signs of dysfunctional group behaviour and the dangers of groupthink. We practise some techniques for critical, constructive thinking, where differences of opinion are valued and utilised. At the end we see better how to complement and energise each other, and to draw on the unique contributions of each member of the team.

These days, there is much change and uncertainty, reducing leaders’ sense of control over outcomes. Bring your team together through collaborative thinking, and draw on their talent and experience in restoring a little stability.


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