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The workplace holy grail: Successful collaboration

4 min read


What is collaboration, really? Office spaces are structured with open-seating plans designed to foster greater collaboration. Steve Jobs so wanted employees to have to walk past and interact with each other that he envisioned a headquarters for Pixar with one centrally located set of restrooms.

So, is collaboration being physically close to one another? Is it about creating situations that encourage interaction? What about all the organizations that have people sitting side by side in open or semi-open office environments? Are they the reigning kings of collaboration? Since collaboration continues to be such a hot topic of interest, our guess is no. Something other than physical proximity is necessary for collaboration. Remote offices, take heart!

Leveraging our differences

Collaboration at its core is harnessing the differences that each person brings and leveraging the contributions of individuals to create a greater sum. This is the fastest, most efficient way for organizations to accelerate growth. The greater sum is an exponential factor that moves companies forward at a rate that can never be achieved by singular individuals.


There is a difference between the idea of embracing differences and the reality of living it. In concept, “you’re different than me” is exciting and refreshing. But in the reality of the workplace, your differences just get in my way. Biologists suggest we’re wired to resist difference as a survival mechanism, because difference can mean death.

But this resistance gets in the way at work, where no one’s life is at stake and where success is always on the line. We are often called in to help when someone who has been hired from the outside is on the brink of being fired. The fall from corporate hero to bad hire happens as organizations tire of the work and frustration during the integration period. In the end, organizations are left shaking their heads and lamenting that their failed hires “just don’t get it.”

A silver bullet?

The key is getting beyond people’s innate resistance to difference. This requires tremendous discipline so as to not slip back into “different=bad” mindset when the chips are down. Organizations who succeed at this are the ones winning in their respective marketplaces.

We have a simple approach that is so powerful that even when people engage it reluctantly results immediately improve. It is so effective that people with incredibly large differences — nations at war, couples in crisis — have found success. It’s called Leapfrog Listening.

Step one: Understand them

We typically listen to be understood, meaning, we want the other person to understand us. Many times we are so focused on being understood that even as the other person is talking, we’re already crafting rebuttals in our minds. In this step, the listener can only clarify or confirm understanding. Only when the speaker says “you got it” can you move to the next step. Both parties do this until they feel understood. It may seem to take extra time, but the investment pays off later.

Step two: Focus on the similarities

Often two sides share more similarities than differences. Yet, because the differences are the emotional hotspots, they command all the attention. The next step is to focus on all the similarities. What is common? Is it important? Do both sides agree? What is missing? If there is agreement on eight or nine out of 10 things, the differences stop feeling so overwhelming and people automatically shift into the next step: problem-solving.

Step three: Problem-solve

Most people thrive in problem-solving mode. It allows for their creativity and resourcefulness to shine. By the time people enter this step, the heated or charged emotion has been eradicated. People are building from a platform of similarity and are focused on the specific problem at hand. They are listening to understand other’s suggestions while building on the ideas. The process typically moves quickly toward agreements. When glitches occur, the recommended recourse is to go back to step one and “listen to understand.” This will diffuse tensions and ensure shared comprehension.

At its core, collaboration is about listening in a different way. We rationally understand that our collective differences make organizations stronger but the unwieldy reality of what this imposes often renders it impractical. As humans, we want to be understood and this is how we typically listen. We want the other person to understand us. For collaboration to work, we must temporarily suspend our needs, remain emotionally present, focus on the similarities and then move into problem-solving mode.

An expert in business growth execution, Kathy Quinn has been helping executives actually deliver on their best ideas by identifying and overcoming the hidden, invisible barriers that derail success. With her guidance, clients find their way to realizing massive, lasting change. Learn more.