Developing a workplace culture of collaboration is a complex endeavor, but the rewards are worth the effort.

To many people, collaboration is one of those buzzwords — right up there with paradigm shift, core competencies and best practices — that’s best suited for playing corporate bingo during boring meetings and presentations.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, innovation, creativity and productivity are much more likely to thrive in organizations that ingrain collaboration into their workplace culture.

Furthermore, these workplaces are more likely to foster high levels of employee morale and engagement, enjoy lower employee turnover and break down long-standing “silos” that crimp communication efforts, says Alan Schaefer, the founder and CEO of Banding

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People Together (, a consulting firm that uses music to teach companies how to build collaborative environments.

“We serve up our collaborative methodology in music-infused fashion,” Schaefer explains. “We’re essentially transferring the wisdom and lessons learned from one of the most volatile collaborative environments on the planet — a band — and combining them with validated behavioral science to build a framework and methodology for effective collaboration.”

So what exactly is collaboration, if not just a corporate bingo term? To fully understand what it is, it’s critical to first know what it isn’t. For starters, it’s not cooperation or teamwork, which are often — and erroneously — used as synonyms for collaboration. Moreover, contrary to popular belief, true collaboration goes well beyond what employees do while they, for instance, work on a project together.

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Instead, collaboration in its purest form is something much deeper and longer lasting. It’s a process, not an activity, in which individuals agree to put aside personal goals for team achievement. Furthermore, collaboration can not only be taught, shared and developed, but measured, too, says Schaefer, whose innovative approach to teaching collaboration has earned the company high-profile clients such as NASA and Microsoft. Schaefer also helped write a white paper on the subject that was recently published by the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School.

“True collaboration is a business process governed by an agreed-upon set of norms and behaviors that maximize individual contributions, create alignment and leverage the collective strengths of a group team or organization,” Schaefer says.

It’s complicated

Efforts to establish a collaborative environment often fail because it’s a complex endeavor. “What’s collaboration to you and to someone else rarely are the same thing,” Schaefer notes. And that creates this unhealthy dynamic that we call collaborative insanity.”

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As such, alignment is a critical component because everyone needs to understand what collaboration is and how company officials intend to achieve it. “Alignment is flow — everyone rowing in the same direction,” he says. “If everyone is sitting in the same boat but has different ideas about how to paddle, it takes a lot longer to get where you want to go.

“You can’t just tell people they should work better together and expect it to happen,” Schaefer continues. “You need some rules of the road — some agreed-upon norms and behaviors. There are a lot of cooks in this kitchen … and everyone hears things and communicates differently, and their brains process things differently.”

How to create those norms and behavior is complicated. But Schaefer and Kip Kelly, the director of executive development at Kenan- Flagler and co-author of the aforementioned white paper, explain that there are three basic building blocks needed in order to build a culture of collaboration: trust, communication and a shared vision/purpose.

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Building trust means creating an environment where everyone feels they have a voice. Employees must believe that they can safely put themselves in a vulnerable position by expressing out-of-the-box ideas and opinions without fear of criticism or retribution. “Employees must be free to express ideas that are really out there without being marginalized,” Schaefer emphasizes. “Sometimes people who come up with crazy ideas aren’t invited to the next meeting. ... There can’t be repercussions for throwing out crazy ideas.” Moreover, if everyone feels they have an opportunity to contribute, innovation thrives, he adds.

Effective communication requires employees to attain a certain level of self-awareness — an understanding that everyone has different ways of communicating and collaborating. As such, that may require them to modify their communication methods to get their points across more effectively, Schaefer and Kelly write.

Last but not least, corporate leaders must develop a shared vision/purpose. That ensures that everyone involved sees how their work contributes to achieving corporate goals — and how collaboration can play a key role in helping them do that, the duo explains.

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Training required

The good news is that collaborative skills can be taught, Schaefer says. The skills that contribute to a collaborative workplace include the ability to embrace change, asking others for input, sharing information, providing constructive feedback, negotiating strategies, recognizing and rewarding employees, self-awareness, and reaching consensus, they write.

On the other hand, there are plenty of “sour notes” in the workplace that can hamper efforts to establish a collaborative culture. Examples include employees who only value other people’s opinions if they respect their expertise, don’t like to “share glory” with others, or never admit mistakes or take accountability for their actions. “These things can completely change a team dynamic,” Schaefer says, which is why collaborative training is so critical.

Naysayers may opine that collaboration is too time-consuming and will actually slow down projects and processes. That can happen, Schaefer concedes — if organizations don’t establish rules of the road. “When people are aligned, you’re actually speeding up the process because you’re establishing best practices — tapping into a group’s brainpower and shortening communication cycles,” he says. “You’re no longer just spinning your wheels because everyone is actually aligned. … They’ve got a baseline understanding of what collaborative behavior looks like.”

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