How collaborating with your coworkers can make you happier and your company better

  • Collaboration is a key ingredient for success in any workplace, but juggling different people's perspectives and aligning around a shared goal can be a challenge.
  • Drake Baer is Business Insider's deputy editor for strategy and the author of "Perception: How Our Bodies Shape Our Minds," about how our worldview affects our ability to connect and work with others.
  • On this episode of "Insider Edge," Baer shares tips for "tricking" your brain into working well with others by building workplaces optimized for collaboration.
  • Tune in to "Insider Edge" every Tuesday for more tips on how to succeed, strategize, and just survive in the workplace.

Working from home these past few months, many of us have been learning to communicate with coworkers and delegate work over Zoom. That's a unique challenge, but it's part of a bigger question in workplace dynamics: How do you effectively collaborate with coworkers, whether your workplace is virtual or not?

Drake Baer is Business Insider's deputy editor for strategy and the author of "Perception: How Our Bodies Shape Our Minds." He says the key to building a better workplace is to trick your brain into working well with others, by breaking down the silos that exist within companies. Here are three ways to do that:

  • Communicate clear and unifying organizational goals: Combat the in-group/out-group dynamics that can arise between teams by articulating a company-wide vision and highlighting accomplishments across departments.
  • Embrace project-based management and work: Encourage employees from different teams to collaborate toward a common goal, sharing resources and building a sense of cross-departmental unity. Apprentice models also allow junior employees to find mentors, senior employees to lighten their workloads, and all employees to feel more comfortable approaching others for help or feedback.
  • Make creative agency a goal and define a pathway to get there: When people have agency over their work, they remember things better, bring more energy to their work, and feel more engaged. Engrain your workplace's culture into your onboarding process so that new hires are ready to be autonomous sooner, and allow for creative collaboration in which individuals can promote their company's goal while still having the space to be themselves.

Transcript edited for clarity.

Drake Baer: I'm a runner. I live in Brooklyn. So I spend a fair amount of time with the hill in Prospect Park. And people listening to this who know about that park will know what I'm talking about. And on some days the hill is steeper than others. And that is not a fantastical thing. What Denny's research has found, and what our book advances, is that, well, if it's relative to your capability, or really my capability, to deal with objects, like a hill that affects the way that we see them.

In fact, other researchers have found that as your body-mass index goes down, the more approachable stairs will walk or, conversely, if you're really like scared of something or someone like, say, a spider, people who are afraid of spiders will see the image of a spider or an actual spider as larger than it actually is.

Charlie Herman: So a lot of it is about that, the way that we experience the world is going to be unique to each and every one of us in part because of the way that we physically experienced the world.

Baer: Yeah: both your physical experience, as well as, like, your psychological history, who you are. So who you are is both what your body is like, of course, but also the sum of your experiences.

Herman: So then how does this idea of perception that people experience the world in unique ways play out in the workplace?

Baer: I think it plays out in a ton of ways really. A lot of it is social perception, right? Because humans are social animals. We're engineered for socializing. The modern organization is like this ongoing experiment in how humans socialize and how to coordinate them. Like the whole exercise of leadership and management is kind of a wrestling with human predispositions in order to get human and organizational and market achievement.

Herman [in narration]: This is where things can get a bit complicated. Workplaces are full of people who, as Drake points out, see things differently. Everyone has their own unique perspective. That's why, if you want your workplace to be collaborative, it's important to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Drake says that starts with leadership setting clear goals.

Baer: Frequently, you know, the job of leaders is often construed in terms of vision of like setting and articulating a vision. That's why meetings and memos are the tools of the trade for management. That's also why like every July 4th the United States celebrates like one of the great memos ever written, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, like those things are like group activities and basically memos that have cascaded down the centuries.

So what you want to do is articulate a vision, like, "Here is what we are all going toward. Here's what we're all rowing toward." The word alignment gets tossed around a lot in corporate settings, right? So are we aligned? Are we all going in the same direction? That's the job of the leader.

And so that you can illustrate that with the impact that the organization has on the world, like with client case studies, like, "Oh, look at this good that we're doing for, if it's B to B, for this business that we work with, we've made this business more vibrant, bettered these people's lives." If it's B to C, "Look at this value we're delivering to customers. Look at these client or customer stories." Bringing those into team-wide meetings that can be very useful.

And then at a more merchandise kind of level, swag works, like giving people T-shirts, mugs, all of that, like corporate swag, that stuff actually works because if someone hops on to the videoconference and they're wearing the Insider Inc., or Business Insider T-shirt, then you're identifying as being on the same team. That's why uniforms are so effective. Right? They provide these clear signals of in-group.

Herman [in narration]: "In-group." Drake says that refers to the signals you pick up on that tell us who's on our team, and who our rivals are. Your people are the in-group. Your rivals are the out-group.

In any collaborative workplace, it's important to take steps to ensure everyone in the company is part of the same in-group, no matter their job is or which department they work in.

And you do that by breaking down those silos that can exist between departments and people, and create programs and processes that prevent cliques from forming in the first place.

Baer: You might remember this. I'm sure you were very popular in middle school, Charlie, but for those of us who are less popular, you may have had the experience of, like, walking into the cafeteria and saying, "Oh, who, who, who can I sit with?"

Herman: Oh yeah. No, no, no, no, let's be clear. I had that experience too. I think everyone does.

Baer: Yeah. So that like raw discomfort is kind of a sensation of being out-grouped. And that sort of stuff is with us all the time. Including when we're in professional settings. So like classic examples are, it's almost like the stuff of like a Dilbert comic to say that like marketing and sales don't get along. Like, there's like some animosity between those two business functions. It's like, "Oh, you're not a part of my department. You're one of the other guys."

Herman: Right.

Baer: Or you can have, in competitive organizations, if there are different teams who are competing for, for similar goals, especially if there's like some scarcity around those goals, then we're very predisposed to see that rival team, right? It's right there in our language. We see this rival team as like, as the other, rather than as part of your organization. That's really how silos get baked into a company. Because if you have cliquishness between departments, then they're not talking to each other, you get the left hand, not knowing what the right hand is doing. And even things like institutional knowledge or the trade secrets of your company can be siloed to just these cliques, these in-groups and out-groups, and that creates all sorts of inefficiencies for the organization.

Herman: If a company is doing a good job of setting a vision for where it wants to go, then what are some very specific steps or actions to encourage employees to work together to do that?

Baer: Yeah. In sci-fi movies all the time, the aliens come to earth, the humans start fighting, and they all get on board.

Herman: We overcome our differences to kill the enemy.

Baer: Yes. So what you want to do is to create big enough goals that it brings people together. Making big vision statements can help with that. You can do that, that also more tactically by getting people across groups, either like across departments or across teams within a department and partnering them on collaborations. So in journalism it's very concrete with double by-lines, right? So as a manager, I love it when one of my reporters double by-lines with someone from another team. Because not only are we going to get that great story that the both of them produce, but then that's also fostering a relationship between these two reporters and between these two teams. And that will lead to like this knowledge sharing stuff I've been talking about down the line.

Herman: Well, what's the benefit of doing this, you know, having people outside of their particular units working with one another, what's the goal of that? And what's the benefit of that?

Baer: With that cross-team collaboration, you're getting implicit knowledge sharing. So the next time that, if one of my reporters, if they worked on a project with enterprise tech, and then they have a question about something in the enterprise tech universe, they have a go-to person to talk to, instead of feeling like the awkward middle schooler, looking for a lunch table. You're like, "Oh, I know exactly where I'm going to sit. I have someone I can talk to who can provide me that guidance." Or conversely, you can employ this really usefully with onboarding, by taking kind of like an apprentice model where especially with more like junior employees pair the more junior employee with someone who's more senior and get them working together frequently. And then that junior employee will have a mentor effectively and someone who has greater experience that they can go to with questions. And that will also hopefully be lightening the load for the more senior employee.

Herman [in narration]: So beyond just breaking down silos, Baer says collaboration makes the work your organization does more effective.

And to encourage employees to work together, managers should focus on project-based assignments, where everyone learns by working as a team toward a shared goal. The bonds you form when you work together are much stronger than the icebreakers and buddy programs companies often promote.

Baer: I'm all for more "let's get together," calendar-invite-based —

Herman: Like let's all go have coffee at noon.

Baer: Yeah. That's great. But to really create this sense of shared identity that I'm talking about, you want people to be tackling projects together to be going into challenges together, cause that really engineers bonds.

Herman: Have you seen studies that demonstrate this?

Baer: I mean, the canonical one was by a Turkish American psychologist, Muzafer Sherif, and it's the robbers' cave experiment. But basically he and his fellow researchers got a bunch of kids — 11-year-old boys — to go to camp for the summer. And they fomented strife between these two like camps of boys within the camps.

Herman: So it was like a Camp A and a Camp B?

Baer: Yes. So these two groups of preteen boys really began to despise one another and would not work together on anything. So then to manipulate that researchers started introducing these big superordinate goals, like having to fix the camp's water supply, which sounds completely wild today. And they'd have to work together to do that. They also had to work together —

Herman: The only way that they could fix the water supplies is if the two teams came together and overcame this fake dislike of one another to work together.

Baer: So when they share this, this major goal, the superordinate goal, then these perceived differences started to melt away.

Herman: And the lessons that we can take from that to today's workplace?

Baer: Is to be delivering these superordinate goals, like fixing the water supply, confronting the alien attack, setting up these big goals, these big vision statements that people can rally around.

Herman: And then giving everyone, bringing them together to sort of work across departments, to work for this bigger goal. So that way they can form connections with one another and all sort of row in the same direction.

Baer: Yeah. And that way you're actually getting a team. You're actually getting people, employing teamwork, rather than having a bunch of kind of isolated siloed rivals.

Herman [in narration]: Of course as a manager you don't want to be like a conniving researcher who's sabotaging the water supply to bring their team together.

So what are the best tools to motivate employees without micromanaging them? Drake says it all comes down to making sure everyone has agency.

Baer: I'm going to tell you what the goals are, but I'm not going to tell you how to do it. You're employing the creativity of the team to reach the goal.

Herman: And you're empowering people to work toward it and figure it out themselves.

Baer: Yes, yes. And equip them to have the relationships that allow them to actuate the vision that they have.

Herman: Whereby they are working with other people, and they're communicating, they have this project that they're working on, and now in a way they have the independence to be creative.

Baer: Yes. So there's a dynamic tension there between the individual, like creativity, and the team-level goal. Right? And like the organization-level vision. The risk is that if that sense of team isn't built and that sense of vision isn't bought into, then that creativity can be unrelated to what you're trying to get at.

Herman: That's what I was about to ask. What do employers do wrong when it comes to collaboration, when it comes to bringing people together?

Baer: Well, you can get to like dysfunctional autonomy, right? Where if someone feels really isolated or they pull back from, from the group, then they can be like on an island and doing their own thing and not actually like executing in a way that's beneficial for them or for the organization.

Herman: We've been talking about people's unique perceptions of the world, ways to bring people together, to work together. Why does this matter at work?

Baer: I think it matters greatly because very little meaningful work done today can be done by individuals. Work is inherently social in the 2020s and beyond, right? So the better we can understand how social perception works, like what the actual nuts and bolts of us seeing each other and dealing with each other and relating to each other, the more effectively we can act together.

Herman: Drake, thank you very much.

Baer: Thank you.

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