In the modern business climate, where humans are often seen as resources, there are fear-based corporate cultures, and management is often asked to do more with less. How do we expect to be in moods that support collaboration and create a collaborative culture?

It is challenging for managers and leadership to stay present long enough and have conversations to simply respond to what is in front of them. And trust can be hard to come by within teams and in the upside-down world in general. Being centered in our responses seems to be out of our grasp. Well…that is the bad news!

I work with a good deal of coaching clients, and one thing those experiences has taught me is this simple truth: when teams have trust, they are allowed to be creative and vulnerable with presenting new ideas. There is a general mood of openness, organizations prosper, and results are more effective.


Often, clients tell me the people within their organizations experience a lack of collaboration. They want to collaborate more — but how? The other problem I see is thatthe word collaboration has become a buzzword which gets thrown around by leaders within organizations. I hear things like: “we need more of a collaborative effort,” “collaboration is the key to innovation” or “let’s build a collaborative culture and communicate better” but seldom do I find people have the same understanding.

I’m writing this piece in an effort to help people understand the difference between collaboration, coordination and what it means to have a collaborative culture. I know from experience when an organization utilized a shared language, it helps teams coordinate and communicate well, so let’s get rid of sloppy distinctions.

The two most commonly used variations of the word collaborate:
1 – Collaborate/collaboration as an action/practice/verb
2 – Collaborative used as an adverb and adjective (i.e. collaborative culture)

Collaboration as action and practice

My generative definition of Collaboration: People coming together as a team for a specific purpose in opening moods to create, design or produce a new possibilities, ways of observing or thinking, and/or to resolve the group’s shared issue or question.

There has been a tremendous amount of research, studies and writing on this type of collaboration explaining why it is imperative to organizations and communities; how true collaboration has positive effects on results and the bottom line. So for the sake of this writing, I am focusing on supporting the definition above by outlining the necessary ingredients of the practice of collaboration and ways this word is often misunderstood.

What needs to be present in order for collaboration, the practice, to happen effectively?

  • The commitment and capacity to trust
  • A shared non-trivial question, topic or problem that doesn’t have an evident solution
  • Authority in fact, not just appearance, of one or more team members
  • Moods of openness, curiosity and possibility
  • Deep non-judgmental listening whereby each contributing member can express their opinions, cares and concerns, which, in turn, can be held by the entire group
  • Shared values of integrity, honesty and respect

I’ve worked with communities and organizations that run the gamut in their capacity to collaborate effectively I’ve witnessed collaboration at its best producing amazing new observers and ways of thinking, some when there was a lack of collaboration, and other situations where there was over-collaboration that thwarted execution. One particular situation comes to mind. I worked with a team whereby a few folks held the assessment that there was over-collaboration happening. After a few conversations with them, I determined there was, in fact, not enough true collaboration happening. There were many meetings, lots of talking and sharing, but not much collaborating – no new thinking.

Where was the incongruence?

It was in their respective misunderstandings of collaboration. Having multi-departmental meetings, information sharing, needing consensus and simple brainstorming are things that are often confused with collaboration. I assert these may involve collaboration, but is not the practice of collaboration. There is talking about work (meetings), and then there’s working together to create something new (active collaboration). As you can see, these things are different.

Working collaboratively

Working collaboratively is a group culture or team participating together in moods of openness, connection and trust to coordinate action for the sake of a shared promise to satisfy customers.

There are many ways to say it. Collaborative culture. Collaborative team engagement. Working together collaboratively. The generative definition above encompasses all of these expressions. When I refer to customers, it refers to the person to whom a promise is being made. That could include a leader, boss, outside customer or another team member.

The moods of openness and connection are necessary because if team members are withholding, controlling, non-delegating or not listening, it thwarts the shared promise and the efforts of the group. These behaviors typically come up when there is distrust or fear present, which are the common types of breakdowns I see when I’m working with clients. Both can be remedied and resolved with working in moods of openness and connection.

Did you notice that I did not use the word communication in my definition? This is implied within in my generative definition and can be both the spoken words in conversation, as well as, a system set up to support the collaborative culture.

In addition to fear and distrust, what ways that working collaboratively can be thwarted?

  • Antiquated communication systems
  • Overcapacity and overwhelm by the team members
  • Regular untimely delivery of information sharing that change the conditions of the promise
  • A “hero” attitude by leaders who don’t let go
  • Isolation and separateness among members
  • Moods of resignation, resentment
  • Team disengagement or high employee turnover
  • Different understandings of the standards and practices

You can see here that working collaboratively requires certain moods, practices and actions. It may or may not include the practice of collaboration as described above. Some components are similar — like openness, commitment and trust. However, you can work collaboratively with trivial decisions or non-trivial decisions. You can work collaboratively without needing to create a new way of thinking or possibility.

I hope this short piece on collaboration will help you and your teams establish a shared language around a term that is often misused. That you can create the conditions with which true collaboration can take place for the sake of your shared outcomes.

Now let’s simply breathe and practice being present enough to put it in place.

About Tess Horan

Tess Horan is an experienced Professional Coach and Leadership Development Consultant specializing in enhancing the professional growth and leadership skills of executives, managers and teams. Her key areas of expertise include generating collaborative cultures built on trust and increased employee engagement, increasing embodied leadership skills, implementing effective communication systems and improving overall professional relationships. Tess is the Founder of Gateway Coaching, a Professional Coaching and Leadership Development Company, having clients as varied from Finance, Insurance and Real Estate Insurance, to community-based non-profit organizations. She is an affiliate coach with consulting firms working with companies looking to make an impact and is a SupporTED coach who is on the team that coaches the TED Fellows. Prior to starting Gateway Coaching, she wore many professional hats including Corporate Manager, Small Business Leader, Certified Public Accountant, Consultant and Trainer. She has worked in PricewaterhouseCooper’s consulting practice, a prominent Boston-based real estate advisory firm and a private capital management firm.

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