Crises like the Covid-19 pandemic highlight the importance of effective collaboration for long-term commercial success. Particularly in a crisis, organizations need to pull together experts with unique, cross-functional perspectives to solve rapidly changing, complex problems that have long-term implications. The diversity of experience allows a group to see risks and opportunities from different angles so that it can generate new solutions and adapt dynamically to changing situations.
Research shows, however, that anxiety makes people more risk-averse in a crisis; as a result, they are less likely to seek out differing perspectives. They tend to fall back on actions and solutions that have worked in the past — what researchers call “threat rigidity.” The desire to try to bring things under control can also lead to a go-it-alone mentality. And as resources (finances, job opportunities, even physical supplies) dry up during a crisis, people often focus on self-preservation. As a result, collaboration across an organization can break down. Our research on the 2008 financial crisis, however, shows that collaboration leads to sustainably higher commercial performance. In this article, we offer seven actions that leaders can take to foster collaboration.
We collected a decade’s worth of data on collaboration and financial performance across dozens of organizations, including professional service firms, financial institutions, and health care organizations. In interviews with some of the subjects, we asked open-ended questions about how they handled work during the crisis. Very different collaboration patterns became obvious. The exhibit below shows the outcomes for one law firm, which were typical across many of the companies we studied.
Records from project and financial databases showed how partners worked before, during, and after the crisis and their relative performance outcomes. To control for outliers, we excluded the partners with the highest and lowest performance historically and those in groups that were likely to flourish during a downturn, such as the bankruptcy and restructuring practices. We separated the remaining 400-plus partners into deciles based on the proportion of their work conducted with other partners versus on their own. Then we plotted their respective revenue generated during the period.
The results were stark. The most highly collaborative workers — the top 10% — grew their business during the crisis and continued that upward trajectory afterwards (see the green line). The performance of the middle group (second and third deciles) declined slightly during the crisis, but their revenues started to recover within a year (see the yellow line). People in the third group (the bottom 70%) hunkered down and dramatically reduced their collaboration with others. They guarded their clients and hoarded work. The revenue generated by this group contracted during the crisis and still had not recovered five years after the recession had ended. We saw a similar pattern in other kinds of organizations.
Why did people work this way? As uncertainly and stress increased during the crisis, the highly collaborative people evolved their approach to developing business and executing work. They expanded their network across functional and industry silos and increased the number of colleagues they worked with. They were willing to pitch in on others’ projects. They talked about how, as the crisis evolved and pressure rose, they teamed up with trusted colleagues to identify and pursue new opportunities — even when it meant getting less personal glory on a project-by-project basis. As a result, they ended up working on a wide variety of clients or projects, essentially spreading their bets across different kinds of opportunities. It’s not that they hit only home runs; it’s that they had more at-bats, and they played different positions as needed.
The self-focused, uncollaborative people took a wholly different approach. They erected walls around their projects, pushed colleagues away, held their business and clients closely, and hoarded work. As a result of their self-interested behaviour, their network diminished. They had no “tribe” to help bring them into existing opportunities and to identify new ones. In one health care organization, for example, when grant funding started to dry up, the loners suffered because they weren’t involved in enough different kinds of research initiatives to keep money flowing into their labs.
The obvious conclusion: The degree of collaboration during a crisis has a huge impact on whether companies and individual employees thrive.
Here is some advice on how leaders can promote collaboration:
1. Encourage naïve questions and constructive challenge. At McKinsey, where one of us (Heidi) once worked, this was called the “obligation to dissent”: It’s not only accepted but expected that people challenge each other’s assumptions and offer new ideas. This means that nobody feels like she risks looking foolish by asking teammates with different functional backgrounds from hers to explain their thinking or define a technical term. Involving people with a wide variety of skills in an effort to tackle novel and complicated problems can help the group collectively see potential risks or solutions that would elude individual experts — especially when they are encouraged to be inquisitive.
2. Watch out for hoarding behaviours. Be imaginative about data sources that might show you behavioural patterns inside your organization: Nearly all leaders with whom we have worked have been surprised that they have access to various kinds of data that can show collaboration patterns (e.g., project management databases used to track grant funding or product development, CRM systems that show sales pipelines).
If such data isn’t available, use pulse surveys to capture people’s self-reported actions; a well-designed three-question survey can be completed in just a few minutes and reveal places where individualistic behaviour is starting to creep in. For example, it might ask those surveyed the extent to which they agree or disagree — on a to-5 scale (1=strongly disagree; 5=strongly agree) — with these statements: 1) The group has a shared sense of purpose; 2) there is a high degree of trust within the group, and 3) colleagues regularly take credit for the work of others.
3. Connect with the front lines. Make direct contact with people down the hierarchy so you have unfiltered information about people’s actions and states of mind. (This is especially critical when people are working remotely.) Such interactions can help leaders understand how employees are coping, identify areas where risks of go-it-alone behaviours are more likely, and establish linkages among people so that they are better able to support each other. Arlene Zalayet, an executive at Liberty Mutual who has 1,800 employees in her department, recently began holding 18 check-ins a month by video with groups, including entry-level workers. In one of these town halls, an administrative worker shared how Covid-19 was affecting her African-American community, sparking an important discussion about the value of the company’s diversity efforts and what it would take to support different kinds of workers through this crisis.
4. Reinforce the business’s purpose and goals frequently. A belief that their work fulfils a higher purpose motivates people to think and act in a more collective fashion — to be more open to collaboration. Clearly understanding the business goals helps people see how their own knowledge contributes to — but doesn’t fully satisfy — the complex needs of the business. Leaders need to lower employees’ sense of uncertainty and boost their confidence to reach out to colleagues. So even if your message hasn’t changed, you need to repeat it because the world has changed and employees need to know that the existing direction still holds.
5. Get team members to reflect on their preferred ways of working. This includes the leader. When you’re under stress, you’re more likely to retreat to your comfort zone, so it’s crucial that you think about what kinds of behaviors come most naturally to you. When the pressure builds, are you more likely to pick up the phone to commiserate and brainstorm with a colleague or to hole up and go it alone? As part of this process, revisit that behavioural assessment you completed last year. And get others’ perspectives. For instance, ask people with whom you’ve been sheltering what they’ve observed you do when you’re stressed. As team members become more aware of their typical styles, they can start to figure out how to use those tendencies to work more effectively as a group.
6. Play to your strengths. Rather than trying to change your natural tendencies — which is almost impossible during the stress of a crisis — focus instead on consciously using your style to improve collaboration. If you are naturally drawn to working on teams, then use your enthusiasm to foster an esprit de corps — for example, by calling out when the team has reached even a small milestone. Boosting engagement and morale isn’t “soft work”; it leads to quantifiable gains in productivity and other “hard” business outcomes. We saw this firsthand with Gillian, a senior manager at one of the Big 4 accounting firms we recently advised. She deliberately builds team members’ confidence and trust in each other’s competence by highlighting their expertise, calling out ways their knowledge helps to achieve the team’s goals and then widely sharing team-based success stories. If you share Gillian’s teamwork orientation, just be careful you don’t overdo it and join many teams at once. Be selective and focus on the highest-priority projects.
If you’re inclined to work independently, you can use that tendency to improve teamwork by helping drive execution. Sameer, a finance director at a software company that we studied, has been nicknamed the “teamwork tsar” because he’s the one most likely to point out when working as a group is worth it and when independent work will be more effective. His go-it-alone preference is a healthy counterpoint that keeps the team focused on the task when others might get bogged down in seeking consensus or when group discussion leads down an unproductive rabbit hole.
Leaders need to appreciate that it doesn’t take a single type of person to boost collaboration; they need to draw on the diversity of behavioural styles and coach each team member to play their own part in boosting cross-silo working.
7. Champion collaborative leaders and teams. Many leaders undermine their talk about the importance of collaboration when they focus praise exclusively on individual employees for hitting a sales target or working overtime. While recognizing individual effort, also acknowledge the team that helped make the person a hero by calling out the specific actions it took to provide support and the ways all of its members accomplished a goal together. Especially when employees are working from home, leaders should emphasize the role of supporting players by mentioning family members’ role in making it possible for workers to be productive.
At some point leaders should examine and address organizational structures such as compensation and incentive systems and hiring practices to see whether they support or undermine a culture of collaboration. But obviously, that will probably have to wait until the crisis has passed. In the meantime, try applying the seven strategies. By promoting cross-silo collaboration, your organization is more likely to survive the current hard times and thrive when they’re over.
This article was originally written by Heidi K. Gardner and Ivan Matviak. Heidi is a distinguished fellow at the Center on the Legal Profession and faculty chair of the Accelerated Leadership Program at Harvard Law School, and Ivan is a co-founder of Gardner & Company and an executive in residence at Battery Ventures. He previously was an executive vice president at State Street Bank. Full credit goes to HBR, who published this article earlier this year. This article has been reprinted for the purpose of education.