by Nina Morel
For years, a lot has been written in business and education literature about the need to collaborate. Just one search on Google will bring up more than 90 million references to collaboration. Why then, is true collaboration so elusive in classrooms, teacher workrooms, and corporate boardrooms? I believe this is because true collaboration is difficult, and often does not come without intention and hard work. In order to collaborate successfully, teams need certain interpersonal skills as well as a climate for collaboration.
What skills do people need to collaborate?
Collaboration both builds interpersonal skills and demands certain skills. Teacher leaders may need to explicitly teach some of these skills before they can collaborate successfully. These include the ability to:
- Read the emotional climate of a situation and improve emotional safety for others.
- Focus on the project, and not on individual personalities.
- Express and advocate for your own point of view.
- Take the other person’s perspective.
- Define mutual goals.
How do I create a climate for collaboration?
Collaboration does not happen automatically. It thrives in an environment where the teacher leader has developed a climate conducive to collaboration. Three essential elements of that climate are:
1. Significant work. When pairs or teams work together, the goal must be worthwhile and the expectations must be high. “Busy work,” or work that is not taken seriously by teacher leaders, does not lead to effective collaboration.
2. Trust. Trust is the most important component of collaboration. High-stakes, highly competitive structures, over-direction or micromanagement, secrecy and lack of transparency undermine trust. When trust in each other is low, sometimes team members have to “trust the process.”
3. Consistent processes. When trust has not yet been developed, a structured process for working together provides a safe emotional environment to take risks. Consistent team processes provide identified roles, discussion protocols and agreed upon norms that lead to productive dialog.
In my work I have found that structured protocols for team meetings lead to greater collaboration. There are many resources online with discussion protocols for almost every kind of collaborative project. If one does not meet your needs, you can create your own. The commonalities in effective team protocols include: an identified facilitator, a time structure, a specific structure for questioning and sharing, and norms or agreements for participation. These structures may seem awkward at first, but they take away many of the barriers to collaboration, which include lack of focus, lack of participation, domination by one or two members, distraction, “wasted” time, and lack of closure. A further advantage to protocols is that with their use team members can practice and hone their individual collaborative skills, such as listening, defining goals, and advocating for a point of view.
With patience individuals can build the personal skills to become better collaborators, and leaders can provide the climate that supports significant work, trust, and processes that lead to strong outcomes and achievement of team goals.