How to Create a Collaborative Culture

Squad goals for innovative workplaces

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A lot of organizations like to talk a lot about how collaboration drives innovation. But then when it comes to actually building collaborative cultures, there's not much action behind all their talk.

Sure, they have a brainstorming session every once in a while. And they just bought some new communication software. Maybe their mission statement even mentions collaboration.

When you look at how work happens every day, though, that's a different story. Departments operate in isolation or are even at odds with each other. Employees know where problems are, or how things could be done better, but don't feel that it's safe to speak up. They also know that it's the solo "rock stars" and not the team players who get rewarded.

A collaborative culture is one where collaboration is regular and deliberate.

This is not an environment where innovation happens – or where anyone actually likes coming to work. In today's complex, ever-changing business world, failing to tap your team's full potential through collaboration could mean your organization gets left behind.

So how can you make your culture more collaborative? It takes more than putting up a few teamwork posters. But it's more doable and more rewarding than you might think. Here's our guide to getting started. (We promise not to mention "making the dream work" even once.)

What is a collaborative culture?

Collaboration happens in just about every organization. But not every organization has a collaborative culture. So what's the difference?

A collaborative culture is one where collaboration is regular and deliberate. Collaboration doesn't just occur if someone happens to initiate it. Instead, it's baked into processes of how people do their work every day and into the attitudes they take about that work.

At its heart, a collaborative culture values the idea that we are better together. It centers on the idea that collective intelligence drives the most creative solutions.

What are the benefits of a collaborative culture?

That quest for creative solutions has many organizations looking for ways to become more collaborative. There's no buzzier buzzword these days than "innovation." Innovative companies have the most cachet. But there's more at stake than cool points. Failing to innovate can mean failing to survive.

And we're seeing more and more that collaboration is one of the most powerful ways to create innovation. One study found that companies with collaborative cultures were five times as likely to be high performing.

There's more at stake than cool points. Failing to innovate can mean failing to survive.

A collaborative culture fuels innovation by bringing out the best in employees. When we feel like we are part of a team effort, we're more energized, productive, and adaptable. Collaboration creates feelings of community and involvement. It makes us feel happier and less stressed.

In short, collaborative employees are engaged employees. And engaged employees are employees who stick around. Besides employee retention, having a reputation as a collaborative culture can help an organization when it comes to recruiting top talent.

What hinders workplace collaboration?

If collaboration is so awesome, why aren't we doing more of it?

Well, some people just haven't developed the skills they need to contribute to a collaborative culture. One survey found that more than a third of job candidates failed to demonstrate that they were team players.

Even when employees are good at collaboration, they might hold back on doing it in their workplace. This happens when managers direct every move instead of trusting employees to collaborate. And it happens when employees don’t feel that it's safe to speak up or voice dissent.

Employees also notice when their organization likes to tout collaboration as a value, but it's actually something that's emphasized only occasionally. In other words, collaboration is seen as something to do in special cases, not on a daily basis. And it's definitely not what employees are evaluated on and rewarded for.

When an organization doesn’t internally talk about something that went wrong, it loses the opportunity to learn from it.

Some organizations have an entrenched culture of silos that compete with each other instead of collaborating and sharing. People hoard information and knowledge as a source of power. 

Others struggle to keep up with all the new ways that we can work and collaborate. They don't help their distributed teams build the trust and relationships they need to collaborate effectively. Employees may lack the communication tools they need to collaborate with colleagues at other locations. Or, on the other hand, the organization treats tools as a cure-all: "We bought this new software. So now we're a collaborative culture!"

But it takes a lot more than that.

What are the key features of a collaborative culture?

Transparency and knowledge sharing

First, collaborative cultures are transparent cultures. A truly collaborative workplace is one where you aren't trying to figure out what the bosses really want. To work together effectively, your team has to align around common goals and be clear about how you are working to achieve those goals.

In a collaborative culture, leaders freely share news and information, whether it's good or bad. Not talking about defeats or setbacks creates an atmosphere where rumors fly, and where employees feel they aren't trusted.

When an organization doesn’t internally talk about something that went wrong, it loses the opportunity to learn from it. In a collaborative culture, the most important thing isn't that you or your team always wins. It's that you learn from everything, and that you make the organization better by sharing what you learn.

While it can be scary to share what's going wrong, sometimes employees also hesitate to share what's going right. An individual or a team might feel possessive about their information and best practices. They might fear that they'll lose their advantage over their colleagues or other departments if they "give away" their secrets.

But this only ends up hurting the organization. Collaborative cultures promote the documenting and sharing of best practices so they can make the most of everyone's expertise. They also provide the right tech tools to make it easier for this sharing to take place.

Trust-filled relationships

An organization that wants to become more collaborative is never going to succeed just by telling people, "OK, start collaborating more." That's especially true if employees are used to making decisions or coming up with ideas mostly on their own. Collaboration flows out of trust-filled relationships. Those don't just happen. But here are a few ways you can encourage them:

  • Collaborative spaces. To promote relationship-building, your workspace needs appealing spaces where employees can work together. Wouldn't you rather collaborate somewhere that's comfortable and inspiring instead of some cramped and dingy conference room?

    You can also see if there are changes you can make in your physical space to bring people with different expertise areas together. Bumping into a colleague in the kitchen or on the terrace can spark conversations that lead to collaboration. The most famous example of this is probably the Pixar headquarters. (Or you could try collaborating cross functionally in a more formal way. Check out our guide to cross-functional teams for more on how to do this.)

Collaboration flows out of trust-filled relationships. 

  • The right tools. Team members don't have to be in the same space to collaborate effectively, though. The right tools can make a big difference in how well employees in different locations can communicate, build relationships and become trusted collaborators. For example, Confluence makes information more accessible to all team members, no matter where they're located.
  • Collaboration strategies. Just buying tools, however, isn't a collaboration cure-all. You need a strategy for virtual collaboration that fits the needs of your team. You have a lot of room to get really creative here. For example, maybe an internal blog could help your employees at different locations get to know each other and share knowledge.
  • In-person meetings. Even if your distributed team members are totally rocking your virtual collaboration tools, it's still important to give them opportunities to spend time together in person. For example, go to a conference together or have remote workers come into the office periodically.

Leaders who model collaboration

Besides promoting transparency and relationship building, leaders have another important role in building a collaborative culture.

For collaboration to really take hold as an organizational value, leaders must become collaborative role models. Their team members are (hopefully!) paying attention to what they say about collaboration. But they're paying even more attention to what they do. 

So what should leaders be doing?

  • Practice what you preach. Leaders can't tell employees to use a new communications tool or a collaborative framework but then ignore it themselves. Team members need to see leaders using them.
  • Don’t go it alone. Leaders also undermine a collaborative culture if they pay lip service to working together but then act like a lone wolf themselves. For some leaders, it can be humbling to admit they don't have all the answers, to seek other opinions and to actually listen to those diverging views. But it ultimately makes them, and their teams, better.
  • Show respect. When leaders model vulnerability, they're demonstrating how much they respect the contributions of their team members. Employees crave more respect. It creates the kind of atmosphere where everyone wants to bring their best.
  • Empower employees to collaborate. That means stepping back from micromanaging and letting team members have more leeway. It means building collaboration into team processes – for example, giving room in timelines for others to review projects. And it means equipping employees with the skills they need to collaborate, through everyday coaching and even special training.
  • Reward teamwork. Finally, leaders who want to make a culture more collaborative should take a look at the behaviors they're actually encouraging. If you talk a lot about collaboration, but praise and promote employees who are more individualistic, the rest of the team is going to notice.

Take the first steps toward a collaborative culture

Building a collaborative culture can be an involved and an ongoing process. So where should you start? Make your organization more transparent by getting important information in one place and making it easily searchable. You can also learn more about how Confluence speeds communication and collaboration.

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