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The Collaboration Issue

Collaboration is broken: Here are 39 ways to fix it.

These days, workplace collaboration can feel downright broken. Here’s The Workback’s guide to getting your organization back into a collaborative groove.

Words by Caitlin Abber

Illustration by Jordan Bogash

Collaboration. It’s long been a tricky thing for businesses. Studies show that when leaders enable collaboration, employees are more likely to complete tasks and companies often perform better and report higher revenues. On the other hand, too much collaboration can actually inhibit team performance, as Fast Company reports. And now, as the where, how, and why of work evolve in real time, truly productive collaboration seems more elusive than ever.

In today’s hybrid work world, collaboration can sometimes feel downright broken. We’re in a vicious cycle of excessive meetings, endless chat threads, and crowded meetings. It’s almost as if we’ve not only forgotten why we need to collaborate, but also how to actually do it. Somehow, we need to get our collaborative mojo back.

To help, The Workback has compiled a guide to better collaboration–precisely 39 tips, best practices, data points and expert insights intended to spark inspiration and help leaders build higher-functioning, more collaborative teams.

According to Heidi K. Gardner, a distinguished fellow at Harvard and author of Smarter Collaboration: A New Approach to Breaking Down Barriers and Transforming Work, when people collaborate smarter, they “generate higher revenue and profits, boost innovation, strengthen client relationships, and attract and retain better talent.”

But what exactly is smarter collaboration?

Heidi K. Gardner, Ph.D., is a Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession and Program Chair of the Sector Leadership Master Class and Smarter Collaboration Master Class.

Heidi K. Gardner

As Gardner tells The Workback, collaboration can help teams avoid running into these common barriers.

“A lack of trust in others’ abilities and intentions, a lack of knowledge of others’ strengths, and performance management systems that discourage collaboration,” Gardner tells The Workback.

Below are tips from Gardner and other collaboration leaders on how to go about repairing broken collaboration at work.

39. Focus on fostering smart collaboration

“Collaboration—when it is truly smart—saves time,” Gardner says. “The right people are brought into a project at the right time, based on their unique skill sets and perspective.”

38. Lead by example

“Leaders who believe in smarter collaboration exemplify trust, and empower their colleagues to do the same,” says Gardner, author of Smarter Collaboration.

37. Turn your learnings into repeatable processes

“Companies that identify collaborative bright spots and share them across the organization are well placed to replicate these successes elsewhere,” says Gardner. “And, by using data and analytics to understand the true collaboration barriers, organizations can make the necessary systemic, behavioral, or culture changes to address their issues.”

36. Praise collaborative team efforts

“Recognition for smart collaboration can go a long way,” Gardner tells The Workback. “For example, in Smarter Collaboration, we share how USAA, a financial services company for US military service members and veterans, shifted its communications away from recognizing ‘individual human heroics’ to praising collaborative success instead. According to former chief operating officer Carl Liebert, ‘Our communications changed to focus on the experiences of our members and the teams that made those experiences better. And it began to build on itself, with teams functioning in a team-of-teams way, like the Special Forces.’”

Collaborators prevail

35. Lean into the “fun” of collaboration

“The fun for me in collaboration is, one, working with other people just makes you smarter; that’s proven.” Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of Hamilton

34. Don’t forget to improvise

A quote famously attributed to Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man outlines the importance of collaboration: “It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”

There’s no way around it: Adaptability is fundamental to successful collaboration. Leaders need to be thoughtful and consistent in managing teams while also understanding that everyone learns, works, feels and lives differently.

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Staying thoughtful and consistent while in management isn’t an easy feat in our fast-paced work culture, so The Workback tapped Michael Ventura, growth advisor and author of Applied Empathy: The New Language of Leadership, to share his best practices for being an adaptable leader: 

Michael Ventura The Workback

Michael Ventura

33. Be versatile in your leadership style

“The biggest detriment to effectively leading teams is the tendency to assume one style of leadership suits all team members,” Ventura tells The Workback. “In truth, what we need are managers and leaders who exhibit empathic versatility and the ability to shift in and out of various styles of leadership, depending on the circumstances and the individual. For instance, some people thrive with direct, candid, and sometimes even terse feedback. This sort of to-the-point direction serves as a motivator and activates the adrenaline and focus they need to get something done well. Others may be better served with a more collaborative coaching style of guidance that helps them feel seen and supported as they progress through their career. There is no single right answer for every employee.”

32. Embrace disagreement

“Collaboration is often misconstrued as consensus,” Ventura says. “We don’t need to agree on everything in order to collaborate. In fact, it is often the tension between our ideas that results in a stronger, more effective outcome. When we embark on collaborative efforts, it’s important to align on shared goals and outcomes that are true for all parties. In this way, we can differ on tactics or techniques, but never on the ultimate goal we’re collectively working toward.”

31. Manage across generations

“Everyone has their own collaboration style. While perhaps generalizing too broadly, it would be fair to say that different generations do have different expectations as it pertains to collaboration,” Ventura says. “Older generations—Gen X and Baby Boomers—grew up in a professional setting where seniority was largely predicated on tenure. Command and control environments that ‘collaborated’ by direction was the norm. Today’s younger workforce is different. While experience should always be valued and respected as input, the contemporary expectation is that in spite of a lack of seniority, their ideas and contribution will be treated respectfully.” 

30. Lead with the end goal in mind

“The Bauhaus tenet of ‘form follows function’ is a vital organizing principle for leading hybrid and remote workers,” Ventura tells The Workback. “Organizations that are struggling with these new modes of working are the ones that are trying to ‘make things feel like they used to.’ But there’s no going back. The proverbial toothpaste is out of the tube. We must now embrace the ‘function’—the expressed goals and objectives that an individual is meant to achieve—not the ‘form’ in which they achieve it.” 

29. Invest your time

Between 2000-2016, there was a 50% increase in the time managers and employees spent collaborating, according to the Harvard Business Review.

28. Reflect on your team management style

“Teamwork matters, and if you want to have the best team of employees possible, you will manage them intelligently,” Lindy Greer, a Stanford University business school professor, told the Associated Press about Google’s findings.

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27. Prioritize learning

“If you just put people together, they’re going to crash and burn unless they have conflict resolution training, a manager who can coordinate roles and opportunities to learn with one another.” Linda Greer, Stanford University professor

26. Be explicit with what you need

“Make sure a person, due date, and all the notes are in every task you need action on. If they aren’t there, the collaboration won’t happen!” —Mark Traynor Quamme, Asana Ambassador and senior project manager at Tellwell Story Co.

25. Listen to your team

“The best leaders are the ones who take the time to listen and understand their colleagues, finding the right motivators that work for them, and flexing their own managerial skills to meet them where they are.” —Michael Ventura, author of Applied Empathy: The New Language of Leadership

24. Inspire connections

“When organizations help employees build connections intentionally, their employees are five times as likely to be on a high-performing team and 12 times as likely to feel connected to their colleagues.” —Harvard Business Review,9 Trends that Will Shape Work in 2023 and Beyond

23. Shift your mindset

When it comes to collaboration, top leadership often falls short. Only 17% of C-Suite executives report “regularly collaborating on long-term interdependent work,” according to a 2019 study from Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends. In order to create a truly collaborative environment, change must come from the top.

22. Champion a growth mindset

“When entire companies embrace a growth mindset, their employees report feeling far more empowered and committed; they also receive far greater organizational support for collaboration and innovation.” —Carol S. Dweck, Stanford researcher and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

21. Spot team dysfunction

Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable is one of the most revered and best-selling books on the topic of team dynamics. Lencioni uses a funnel to show how dysfunctional teams form and operate. Any leader hoping to build a collaborative team should print this out and pin it to their office wall immediately.

Chart outlining the five dysfunctions of a team: absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results.

The five dysfunctions of a team

20. Build a high-functioning team

A few years ago, the People Operations team at Google kicked off a two-year research project with the goal of answering what they thought was a pretty simple question: What makes a Google team effective?  They were surprised by the results.

As it turns out, a team’s efficacy has more to do with the team’s interpersonal dynamics—and the spoken and unspoken rules of how it functions—than with its members’ individual skill sets or pedigrees. 

Illustration showing the five dynamics of effective teams: psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and impact

The five dynamics of effective teams

For a team to be successful, the researchers found that every member of the team should be able to say yes to these five questions: 

  • Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  • Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high-quality work on time?
  • Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
  • Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
  • Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that our work matters?

Author, consultant, and podcast host Lakshmi Rengarajan has made a career of understanding and improving workplace connections and knows a thing or two about collaboration.

“Collaboration has always been complicated, but especially with the pandemic, it changed overnight,” Rengarajan tells The Workback. “And a lot of people’s wires got crossed.”

Below, Rengarajani shares her insights and strategies for communicating and collaborating with other humans in 2023 and beyond. 

19. Be mindful of how you use collaborative technology

“You know when you’re collaborating in a shared document, and you get those notifications that say rejected suggestion, rejected, rejected? You’re literally looking at the word rejected, and sometimes, that’s your only interaction with your collaborator,” Rengarajan tells The Workback. “We know from studies on digital use that our brains try to make sense of all these little things, so when you see someone rejecting your work, it’s hard to imagine that it doesn’t have an interpersonal effect.”

Lakshmi Rengarajan The Workback

Lakshmi Rengarajan

18. Have a plan before you begin

“Before you launch a project, I think it’s important to make a list of things that will happen,” Rengarajan says. “Someone’s going to be late. We’re going to disagree. We might work beyond normal working hours. There’s going to be someone who has to make the final decision. There are going to be a lot of cooks in the kitchen. Instead of reacting in the moment, make a list as a team, and decide together how you want to handle these issues. I’ve found that if you talk about it before, you can talk about it in a non-contentious, playful, and exploratory way.”

17. Practice collaboration like a muscle

“Here’s an exercise I do when I’m working with companies that are trying to build better teams and increase productive cross-functional collaboration: I’ll give people a hypothetical scenario, like planning a high school prom, and I’ll ask them how they’d go about organizing it,” Rengarajan says. “How would they publicize it, how would they get people to come, and what would the messaging be? What would the decor be like? What would they decide on the theme? It’s kind of neat because there’s nothing at stake when people have a hypothetical scenario. They’re in this neutral space, so they can share in a non-threatening atmosphere, and their teammates can see how their brain works and how they collaborate.”

16. Transform gossip into clarity

“A lot of times, what looks like gossip is someone just trying to process an interaction with somebody,” Rengarajan tells The Workback. “They’re looking for validation, and they’re looking for someone to be like, ‘Oh yeah, I can’t believe she always uses the fire emoji. What’s up with her?’ To keep things productive, I try to help them process it rather than throw fuel on it. Go to a place of understanding and curiosity, and say something like, ‘That’s interesting. What do you think she meant by that?’ This direction can slow down the tendency to assume the worst about someone’s actions.”

15. Give grace

“We’re all trying to get along with people, but our natural tendency is often to look for the worst in them,” Rengarajan says. “So I try to be very careful with the language I use when talking about someone’s behavior, and I try to ask myself, ‘Okay, what might be going on with this person? What perspectives might I be missing? And also, what’s on their plate?’ We have compassion for people when they’re going through a hard time, have lost a dog, or have a sick child. But we need to also have compassion for the fact that people are trying to figure out how to communicate in this new paradigm.”

14. Commit

“Individual commitment to a group effort—that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” —Vince Lombardi, the late American football coach and National Football League executive

13. Lead with support and positive reinforcement

“You never want to extinguish the fire of someone else’s excitement about their project just because it’s not your cup of tea,” writes Callie Johnson, an award-winning executive and owner of Bold Lines consulting firm in a 2020 article for Forbes. “Ask for and value their feedback to dive in and find their source of excitement. Perhaps it’s their first big project of the season or the first time leading an initiative. Look for the bright spots to break up what can sometimes seem like monotonous tasks. Thinking about how you would feel if you went to someone with a project that you were excited about and were met with an unenthused type of response can reinforce the need to provide a positive experience.”

12. Communicate clearly

“There have always been ways to misunderstand someone, but now the ways have multiplied 10x across the board.” Lakshmi Rengarajan, workplace connection advisor

11. Look for input from different sources

“When individuals who entered the workforce before email can collaborate smoothly with those who were raised on memes and selfies, your business can bring more widely appealing products to market, craft compelling marketing campaigns to touch millions, and win love for your brand across the generational spectrum.” Harvard Business Review, “Bridging Generational Divides in Your Workplace

Collaboration takes a lot of emotional energy. Even when high-EQ teams are given all the tools to collaborate as productively as possible, there’s still a human toll. Talking to other people all day can be exhausting, so it’s important to create guardrails for yourself so you don’t experience collaboration overload.

Here are a few tips Rob Cross, author of Beyond Collaboration Overload, recently shared with TED:

10. Use your “no”

“Learn to be comfortable saying no,” Cross advises. “Remember: It helps others become self-reliant. Shift your perspective from deriving satisfaction from helping to teaching people how to solve their problems.”

9. Focus on growing others

“The most efficient collaborators don’t try to get their sense of purpose and worth from demonstrating their accomplishments or trying to gain status,” Cross says. “Instead, they get it from developing others and positioning them to be valued for their capabilities.”

Robert Cross The Workback

Rob Cross

8. Be honest about what you don’t know

“By being authentic about your limits and having the courage to ask questions, you reduce your unproductive activities and create space for others to be honest and admit they don’t have the answers either,” Cross says. “All this increases others’ trust in you.”

7. Stay open to change

“The most efficient collaborators have an expansive tolerance for ambiguity,” Cross says. “They focus on being directionally correct, ensuring they are moving in the right general direction on the project. They remain open to adapting their ideas and plans as new information comes in.”

6. Use the right tools

“Accountability, visibility, and discoverability are advantages that come from proper project management and using the right tools.” –Joël St-Pierre, Asana customer and manager, Project Management Office, at Autodesk

5. Give and take responsibility

“The whole point of collaboration is that you give and take from each other, and that’s how you create things that are totally new.” —Fashion designer and creative director Virgil Abloh to Elle magazine

4. Always work together

Employees who collaborate together are 50% more engaged and effective than employees who worked alone, according to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

3. Recognize when you’re doing too much

“When people talk about collaborative overload, they inevitably blame culprits such as out-of-control email, back-to-back meetings, demanding clients, and unreasonable bosses. But our research has shown that about 50% of the time, the main culprit of our overload can be found by looking in the mirror.” Harvard Business Review, Collaboration Overload is Sinking Productivity

2. Step aside when necessary

“We’re too eager to jump into, or be dragged into, active collaborations that might run better without us and that burn up our valuable time and energy.” —Rob Cross, author of Beyond Collaboration Overload

1. Remember success is a team effort

“One thing I believe to the fullest is that if you think and achieve as a team, the individual accolades will take care of themselves. Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.” —Michael Jordan in his 1994 book, I Can’t Accept Not Trying: Michael Jordan on the Pursuit of Excellence