Making Teamwork Work: Q&A with Thea Singer Spitzer, Author of ‘The Power of Collaboration’

Mary Lorenz

Collaboration gets a bad rap, often perceived as a chore workers are forced to do, instead of something they actually want to do – not only willingly, but voluntarily. In the right culture, however, collaboration can not only be painless, it can lead to something “magical,” according to Thea Singer Spitzer, PhD., author of the new book, “The Power of Collaboration: Powerful Insights from Silicon Valley to Successfully Grow Groups, Strengthen Alliances and Boost Teams Potential.” Collaboration, Spitzer argues, is the secret sauce behind the success of such innovative companies as Google, Tesla and Apple. In her book, Spitzer combines her years of experience working with Silicon Valley leaders to put together a framework for other companies to use. Spitzer recently spoke with CareerBuilder about some of her findings.

CB: Why did you decide to write this book? Do you feel collaboration is more important today than before?

TSS: We’ve gotten into a situation in this country where we’re more divisive with other people…and we tend to feel less respectful of and less willing to listen to those who have very different opinions than ours. From the highest levels in our country, the model is being set for that divisiveness, and it’s affecting all of us in all of our lives…and it is affecting the workplace.

The other thing is, collaboration has been around since the early agricultural ages 10,000 years ago…[but] it’s only been in the last 30 to 40 years that it’s become a real concerted, conscious focus in the workplace. We’re a lot better at it than we were…but we’re still falling short. When you survey both leaders and non-leaders in organizations, and ask, “What are the issues that are broken or not working in your organization?” Collaboration and how we work together are still among the top 10 topics that come up.

CB: What are some of the obstacles to productive collaboration?

TSS: Two key things tend to hold companies back. The first is what I’m dubbing “the vegetable phenomenon.” Most people and most organizations see collaboration as akin to eating your vegetables – and you can’t blame them. Their experience with collaboration has been frustrating. It’s been a waste of time. While sometimes it does work and results in better ideas, it’s a really painful experience the majority of the time. The approach to collaboration being used in Silicon Valley allows people to see collaboration as the dessert, as something very enticing that they want to do and want to be a part of.

The second obstacle is, human beings aren’t born with collaboration skills. Nor are many of us taught these skills before we arrive at the workplace. Most of us are highly educated and trained in our trade or our profession…but the skills of working with others are just as complex – and sometimes even more so – than the technical parts of our trade or our progression. It’s just as important to teach those skills as it is to teach the skills of the profession that person is in.

CB: How do Silicon Valley leaders make collaboration more palatable for employees? How do they make it feel more like “dessert”?

TSS: I think they see collaboration differently than many other people see it. They realize that most people are social animals – we feel good about working in groups. They also realize that, while we’re not selfish people, we’re also self-interested. Most of us want to achieve financial rewards and recognition. And if people feel their compensation or their respect or their recognition is going to decrease by working with others, they’re going to be far less willing to collaborate. The leaders of Silicon Valley get that self-interested aspect, so anything they do in a collaborative culture, they still have to be willing to reinforce and reward and compensate people for the hard work they’re doing.

Another thing is, they see collaboration as a way of life, rather than a technique to be pulled out and used only in certain circumstances. And seeing it in that broader way allows and encourages people to achieve entirely different results. When we’re truly collaborating, we create what I call a “communal brain;” we…not only bring out everyone’s best, we can turn everyone’s individual best into those ideas that actually become amazing results.

And finally, these leaders realize there’s a huge voluntary aspect of collaboration. The deeper kind of collaboration can’t be coerced. Creating that petri dish that ideas spring from, it comes from when people are committed, not when they’re complying. You can require people to come to work with others and require them to go to meetings, but you can’t force them to come up with Google’s search engine...or Tesla’s all electric car. Those amazing ideas only come to life when employees are inspired to participate at that level.

CB: Do you think collaboration should be part of corporate training programs?

TSS: I think training in collaboration really makes a huge difference when training is a way of life in your organization – when you have what I’ve dubbed “a collaborative ethos” that fits with your organizational culture. When you have a collaborative ethos, your employees want to work together and do work together in an entirely different way. It doesn’t mean that everything has to be done as a group or by consensus. It’s just a philosophical view people have of wanting to work with others. They want to help others, they enjoy teaching others, sharing with others, and learning from others. That’s what happens in the collaborative ethos. So training can work, but it works even better when the leaders create and commit to a collaborative ethos.

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