7 Ways for Managers to Create a Culture of Collaboration and Trust

Collaborative operational models have become the norm in business, and for good reason. To make them work requires trustworthy people, processes and technologies. Since the latter two create the accountability structures that engender mutual trust, there has never been a more opportune time to create a collaborative operational culture.

Collaboration has always been an ideal worth attaining — a mode of working that promotes common goals. Teams that function this way share high personal integrity and dedication, they accrue developmental value to each individual over time, and they often are highly productive and innovative. Beyond people, processes and technology, collaboration requires organization and specialization, so it changes not only the way we work but what employers seek in employees.

With its shared goals and strong commitment, collaboration differs from the often-associated terms of cooperation and coordination. Cooperation involves broad but mandated goals, driven by directives to meet business needs. The commitment is often uneven, and while trust is important, it is not essential. Coordination involves narrow goals, driven by directive, but with independent activity and even less need for trust.

The essential component of trust in collaboration is difficult to build because the qualities that suggest trustworthiness in individual contributors — honesty, ethical behavior, motivation, respectfulness, communication skills — are not always present. Given this less-than-ideal condition, managers need to think strategically about how to invest in building the trust required for true collaboration.

Consider a few methods for creating a culture of collaboration and trust:

Team-Building Exercises

As a manager, you may not have the luxury of developing team cohesion over time. Whether you have a newly assembled department or are quickly replacing multiple employees, team-building exercises can accelerate the process for building a collaborative culture.

Negative & Positive: In this exercise, the group is divided into pairs. In each pair, one partner shares something negative that has happened to him in a professional setting, then the second partner presents the same experience but tries to find a silver lining. Then the two switch roles. Objective: Collaborate in turning adverse situations into productive experiences.

Scavenger Hunt: Divide the group into pairs and provide a list of absurd tasks for each team to complete on deadline. You might ask one team to make a funny video with a stranger at lunch, or another team to find odd objects planted outside the building. Whichever team completes the list quickest wins. Objective: Use humor to facilitate bonding and collaboration.

Escape Room: These trendy places are perfect for fostering group problem-solving. Escape rooms have different themes, such as fleeing captivity, breaking out of prison, or surviving a failed mission to Mars. Assemble teams of four with different abilities and perspectives. For example, pair creative types with scientific types. Enabling people to contribute using their distinct skill sets outside the office helps improve communication, foster respect for different approaches, and demonstrate how complementary skills can bring team success.

Hold In-Office Events

Informal events during work hours may seem a distraction, but they offer benefits. Whether you host a panel of industry experts to give a seminar, have groups demonstrate the results of their work to other departments, or even conduct an informal cross-departmental discussion of industry trends, events lower barriers to participation and help accelerate connections between people.

Be Both Task- and Relationship-Oriented

Managers have traditionally been task-oriented, delegating responsibilities and monitoring projects through to completion. Building a collaborative culture depends on instilling trust between yourself and your subordinates, and between team members. A Harvard Business Review study found that the most productive, innovative teams were led by people who were both task- and relationship-oriented. Further, these leaders changed their style on the fly, becoming more focused on growing internal connections between people once tasks were nearing completion.

Model Collaborative Behavior

Demonstrating desired behaviors is a powerful way to produce them. Managers have opportunities in interdepartmental meetings to bring members of their teams so they can observe higher level collaborations and learn about the processes that produce positive results. Another constructive way to model collaborative behavior is to detail successful collaborations in writing and share them with the team.

Stop the Finger-Pointing

Blaming and shaming are ugly traits of distrustful teams. When truly collaborative teams fall short of their objectives, there is no finger-pointing. Instead, team members work together to identify areas of improvement, learn from the experience and grow together. Blame undermines trust and lowers morale.

Talk About Trust Issues

Given that building trust between individuals hinges on their shared values, it often takes communication to raise the levels of personal integrity, honesty and mutual support. When trust issues emerge, you will need to know what they are so you can overcome them. A good way to do this is through anonymous questionnaires that identify where the lack of trust originates. Share with the group the overall findings but not the individual responses.

A team without trust is not a team; it is a loose collection of individuals who happen to be assembled for cooperative purposes. When true collaboration is the goal, building trust is the first imperative.

Learn more about the UofSC Aiken online MBA program.


Economist Intelligence Unit: The Role of Trust in Business Collaboration

HBR.org: Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams

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