Relationship over task: a central pillar for effective collaboration

Published on July 18, 2017

The business and social case for active collaboration is well researched and widely accepted, but reality often falls short of the aspiration to leverage multidisciplinary and geographically dispersed talent to achieve innovative business strategies. Task reigns supreme in many collaborative partnerships, but when we're talking about collaboration between people and not just systems, the primacy of relationships can't be underestimated. Here's the science of why, and some tips on what you can do to strengthen the relationship pillar for effective collaboration.

Caveat: amongst my clients, some technically oriented professionals can find the concept of 'relationship over task' too foreign to contemplate. If this applies to you, please feel free to substitute 'relationship over task' with 'relationship beside task'. I assure you, the views expressed below are backed by science and best practice!

The compelling reasons for emphasising relationship

One of the greatest blind spots humans fall into is assuming that everyone thinks the same way, and this prevents us from getting beneath the tip of the iceberg of other people's perspectives. It also places us at risk of distrust, born from the uncertainty that rises when we start to glimpse that other people's maps of reality are not the same as our own. As uncertainty increases, corrosive "us versus them" thinking - and the associated protective distrust behaviours - can derail collaborative efforts.

By emphasising relationship over task, we instead seek to understand other people's perspectives and see what's below the tip of the iceberg. We may not share the same perspective, but when we seek to understand other people's worldview, it contains our sense of uncertainty and by extension, enables trust to be cultivated.

Why is trust vital for effective collaboration? Well, think back to the original intent: to leverage multidisciplinary talent in order to achieve business objectives.

We know from neuroscience, that for people to operate at their best and utilise the extraordinary capacity of their prefrontal cortex, also known as their Executive Brain, they need to feel trust, or at least, not have their distrust networks dominating. When distrust networks are activated through a spike in the stress hormone cortisol, it can signal to the prefrontal cortex that it's not safe to open up and share, and so our access to our higher-order thinking shuts down. We can no longer tap into the full potential of our executive brain, where the capabilities of wisdom, innovation, strategy, empathy, foresight, insight and trust reside. So much for leveraging talent!

There's more that neuroscience has taught us. It's a key piece in the puzzle my clients are trying to solve when they ask: "How do you get people to want to work together in the first place?” When we place relationship over task and the associated intention to understand each other, we're also more likely to benefit from the social-bonding functions of our heart-brain. Yes, you read correctly, developments in neuroscience have shown that our heart actually sends more messages to our brain than our brain sends to our heart! These messages affect psychological factors such as attention level, motivation, perceptual sensitivity and emotional processing, so as you can see, collaboration is not all about using our heads. The heart, along with the brain, also produces the neurochemical oxytocin, commonly referred to as the love or social-bonding hormone, which has been shown to be involved in cognition, tolerance, trust and friendship and the establishment of enduring bonds. So when our heart-brain and head-brain are in sync, we optimise the potential of humans working together.

Google came to a complementary view when they sought to find out what made their best teams so productive and successful: their data from the research project code-named Project Aristotle proved that two relationship-oriented behaviours made all the difference. Firstly, all good teams practised conversational turn-taking, where all members spoke approximately the same amount of time, and secondly, they had high average social sensitivity, meaning the teams were "skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues". The interpersonal trust and mutual respect that these behaviours produce - aspects of what is known as psychological safety - are enablers for the interpersonal risk-taking that creativity and innovation stem from. So relationships really do matter. Effective collaboration goes beyond the task. It goes beyond the enabling conditions articulated by the late J. Richard Hackman of having a compelling direction, a strong structure, and a supportive context. When you place relationship as a central pillar you elevate the collective intelligence of the collaborative partnership and increase productivity and success. 

Practical ways to strengthen the relationship pillar

The following simple meeting rituals can assist collaborative teams to get below the tip of the iceberg of each other's perspectives and cultivate trust to enable greater results. Whilst I’ve framed them in a meeting context, they all include an intention to improve the quality of conversations and relationships, and can be applied to all conversation settings.

  1. Establish terms of engagement for how you want to work together. Whether it’s an operational team, collaboration project or Board, my clients all report that the teams that have discussed and agreed how they want to operate together, perform better than those who haven’t. Terms or engagement, or T.O.E. for short, can include operational elements such as meeting structure and frequency, but the more powerful and trust cultivating elements reflect the purpose of the team and the collective values of its members. Incorporating aspirations as well as behavioural norms into the T.O.E. can also lift the energy of the group. For a vibrant example of this, check out Mindvalley’s ‘Code of Awesomeness’.

  2. Introduce a check-in ritual as the first agenda item for each meeting. Allocating 3-5 minutes at the start of a meeting for each person to check-in encourages everyone to tune out from other distractions and focus on the meeting and each other. The check-in question can be as broad as "what's on everyone's mind", "what one word describes how you're going this week?" or “tell us about your highlight since we last met”. These questions allow each person to share something of themselves and this can help others to understand the context of comments they then make during the meeting. As a simple example, if someone shares that they've just received some difficult news, the rest of the team will understand why this person’s facial expressions and tone are more strained than usual during the meeting. They won’t need to guess whether this change is due to the meeting content or otherwise. You can also use check-in questions more tailored to the meeting content such as "what questions do you think most need to be addressed in this meeting?"

  3. Practice the Conversational Intelligence® essentials of 'listen to connect', and 'ask questions for which you have no answer' - whether you're discussing task or relationship. Both of these practices contain an intention of engaging in conversations with curiosity and a desire to understand other people’s perspectives rather than allowing your preconceived judgements to dominate. You can find references to these C-IQ essentials in my previous articles.

  4. Include an anti-groupthink process within meeting agendas by making it safe for people to express any concerns or hesitations. There’s a powerful tool within Conversational Intelligence that allows people to express not only what they like about the ideas or approaches being discussed, but also any areas they want to explore further or have feared implications about. These feared implications can then be reframed or restated so they can be constructively addressed. This process minimises the break-downs that occur as a result of false consensus and helps build a more thorough understanding of each other’s perspectives.                     
  5. Close each meeting with an appreciation ritual. When we express appreciation we engage our heart-brain and get in sync with others. As shared above, this activates the trust networks in our brain and helps us to utilise the executive capabilities of our prefrontal cortex. At the end of each meeting, invite each person to share what they appreciated about the meeting. Responses can range from "I appreciated hearing Joe's perspective about...” to "I appreciate that we solved XYZ challenge", or simply "I appreciate that we're finishing on time". Aside from strengthening the relationship pillar, an appreciative mindset also boosts our immune system, so as people embrace this ritual and start to look for what they appreciate about the collaboration team, they'll also be contributing to their wellbeing.

May you enjoy the personal and professional benefits of incorporating these practices that focus on the heart (backed by the science) of effective collaboration.

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