When I see high-performing teams that are working well together, I can attribute that to their people, tools, and practices every time. When I see dysfunctional teams, they almost always have the same tools as their high-performing counterparts. The difference is in the people and practices.

In an age where work is increasingly about creative problem-solving (i.e., now and the foreseeable future), effectiveness is the new efficiency. And robust collaboration is the key to effectiveness. You can’t stay relevant if you’re not constantly evolving the way you work, what you know, and the practices you employ.

Too often, company leaders fall into the trap of thinking the collaboration tool du jour  – think internal social networking platforms or digital scrapbooks – is just the silver bullet they need. “People aren’t sharing ideas? Don’t worry! We’ll get a tool to solve that.” But they learn quickly that without the right off-line behaviors, your shiny new tool is simply a sunk cost.

Emotionally intelligent leaders intrinsically understand that collaboration can’t be bought. It has to be woven into the company culture. They hire smart, life-long learners, and invest in creating an environment where they can thrive. Inevitably, today’s best leaders get these three things right.

Empower teams to make their own decisions

Emotionally intelligent leaders foster a collaborative culture by acknowledging they’re not the smartest person in the room. They decentralize decision-making and give teams the autonomy to move quickly and bring the full weight of their expertise to bear on whatever problem they’re solving. They leave meetings knowing more than when they arrived. They listen with intent.

To keep everyone aligned, they lay out a vision for their teams to execute against. Letting the people closest to the work decide how the work will be done imparts a sense of ownership and gets people engaged.

Without autonomous decision-making power, employees feel disconnected. They don’t see the relevance of their work, except as a means to a paycheck and maybe a promotion. That’s when information hoarding and office politics set in – culture killers of the highest order.

Create fluid, cross-functional teams

There’s this little movement called DevOps you may have heard of that’s all about breaking down organizational silos. They’re onto something. Turns out, the best way to get your HR people and your finance people to collaborate closely is to put them on the same team. If not as neighbors on your org chart, at least as contributors to the same project.

I’m a member of a couple teams at Atlassian, one of which comprises six people from different functional backgrounds who all report to different managers. We’re all part-time on the project, but we’re active on it daily. The diversity of skills and thought in the mix means we arrive at better decisions (and faster) than if the project was handed off to each of us in turn.

Create a safe space for dissent and unlearning

Contributing fresh or dissenting ideas puts you in an inherently vulnerable position. See also: partnering with another person to deliver your work. In order for people to embrace collaboration, they have to believe they won’t regret it.

Diversity and inclusion are absolutely critical aspects of creating a safe space for collaboration. But you have to think beyond the numbers. Here’s a familiar exchange: “Our staff is 40% women!” “Do they all work in Marketing and HR?” “Pretty much. What’s your point?” The point is there has to be diversity at the team level, so everyone is interacting with a diverse group of people every day.

Practices matter, too. I’ve seen teams adopt blameless post-mortems (hat-tip to DevOps, once again) in which it’s assumed that whatever happened was a shared failure. An opportunity for the whole team or department to examine their systems and practices, then make some changes. Some even conduct pre-mortems in which they imagine how the project could fail, then take action to prevent it. When un-learning happens at the group level, it sends a signal that individual un-learning is ok, too.

Fixing collaboration with culture isn’t easy (but it’s effective)

Tools can’t un-do the damage wrought by a toxic office environment or shitty practices. To unleash our potential, we need to understand the human side of our interactions before we bake bad practices into whatever tools we roll out.

If you’ve got already got whiteboards on every wall in your office, but people don’t feel comfortable collaborating, an online version of that won’t change anything. Collaboration is the art and science of trust, respectful dissent, listening as much as talking, cognitive diversity, and psychological safety. None of which actually require technology.

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Is collaboration alive and well on your team? Try a 1-hour Team Health Monitor workshop and find out how you’re tracking on eight attributes shared by high-performing teams. (And did we mention it’s free?)

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Also published on Medium.

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