The Most Effective Leadership Training Begins With Collaboration

By Mike Vaughan - January 23, 2018

The golden thread that unites many of the topics we discuss here for a common purpose is collaboration. Globalization, mergers, and acquisitions in an increasingly competitive market require effective leadership training to convey the art and discipline of collaboration across organizational and cultural boundaries, uniting people from diverse backgrounds.

Regardless of the challenges, one of the most effective ways to solve problems and transform your business is through the collaboration of diverse thinkers. At the core of collaboration is a collective determination to strive for something greater than any individual can achieve alone. It requires a willingness to share and learn. When done right, teams that work collaboratively can leverage resources more responsibly, solve problems more thoughtfully, and find new ways to innovate.

This all sounds like a no-brainer. Of course collaboration is important. Why, then, with so much written about the subject and so much of our daily time spent practicing communication, can most problems be traced back to a breakdown in communication?

It’s because organizations are teaching and practicing the wrong skills or they talk about the purpose of communication in abstract terms. For example, most leadership and management training talks about the need to establish trust and credibility before real communication can occur. Other leadership development training programs focus on processes or tools used to drive toward win/win outcomes. And others focus on what is needed to engage the hearts and minds of the listeners to persuade and motivate them.

Frankly, it’s hard to argue with any of these statements. On the surface, they’re all important to communication. The issue resides in the fact that they focus on the visible factors of communication and miss the underlying dynamics that drive effective collaboration.

Communication, in its simplest definition, implies that the communicator conveys information to the receiver, who then reciprocates with either questions or confirmation. This process switches between the various parties until understanding is achieved.

Collaboration, as we define it, focuses on the identification of one’s own biases and flawed mental models that hinder the progress toward a shared vision. While communication emphasizes external processes, collaboration exposes internal dynamics. Both are needed, but the latter is rarely developed and is where effective leadership training really proves its value. Strong collaboration, then, is not just about getting others to agree; it resides in the ability of the collaborators to surface and discuss the underlying systems behind the problem. If the focus is placed on the system, then less blame will be placed on individuals, allowing for more productive dialogue. This is critical. Because of democratization and new media sources, the number of people involved in making decisions is significantly increasing, which means the likelihood of gaining agreement will continue to become more difficult. Therefore, value workers will be those who can collaborate across boundaries (divisional, geographical, or cultural) to make decisions that lead to systemic solutions to problems.

In their research titled Discovery Mindset: a decision-making model for discovery and collaboration, Joy Benson and Sally Dresdow found that “. . . decision makers need to expand not only their frame of reference but also their mental model of what constitutes effective decision making. Doing so can help them be more effective in leading and in the process of discovery that is focused on expanding the search for ideas and exploring multiple alternatives. It also encourages the collaboration and engagement of those affected by the decision making process and outcomes.”

I’m guessing, at this point, that there may be a reader who is saying, “Yes, but what about . . . ?” There are other important skills, but at the end of the day an individual’s value is ultimately determined by the problems she solves as the result of the decisions she makes collaboratively.

After ten years of watching participants battle it out in business simulations, I am convinced that people will fight for fairness above glory. Let me clarify. Teams will be very competitive and do what it takes to win. However, teams cannot achieve unanimity until all members feel they have been treated fairly. Now, individuals may give in or agree to disagree so that their team might go on to victory, but in doing so, the team as a whole will have lost the larger battle. Unless the underlying need for fairness is established and upheld for everybody, nobody wins.

Neuroscientists have discovered that when people feel as though they have been treated unfairly, there is activity in the amygdala, which performs a primary role in the processing of memory and emotional reactions. Individuals will remember being treated unfairly when they interact in a similar situation or with a similar person. People don’t have to go far to recall a time or two when they felt as though they were treated with disrespect, were not listened to, were overlooked, or were labeled and put into an invisible box. The feeling of fairness is so important to the brain’s well-being that a person may chose fairness over other external rewards. Understanding this innate need is helpful in developing effective leadership training programs, and in creating relationships that focus on respect, acceptance, and equality.

Michael Vaughan is the CEO of The Regis Company, a global provider of custom business simulations and experiential learning programs. Michael is the author of the books The Thinking Effect: Rethinking Thinking to Create Great Leaders and the New Value Worker and The End of Training: How Business Simulations Are Reshaping Business.

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