Connect People • Strengthen Leaders • Embrace the Future

How Do We Get Better At Collaborating?

What we are observing about Collaboration:

Collaboration is a sophisticated skill that asks people who work together to look beyond personal interests towards outcomes benefiting the whole. Collaboration is a great way to address complex, adaptive challenges, since it has the potential to tap communal creativity and unleash true innovation and earn genuine buy-in.

Despite an increasing desire for collaboration in the workplace and the prolific use of this buzzword, effective collaboration is a challenge in many work environments. Often, people are:

  • Working independently, isolated in their silos of expertise
  • In units or teams where competitive behavior is the norm
  • Hoarding knowledge and resources - fearful of losing their jobs or their relevance, and thus suspicious of others
  • Excluding those who are ‘different,’ be those differences cultural, racial, generational or gender based
  • Hostile (overt or passive-aggressive) to perceived competitors: using argument, needless debate, gossip, character attacks, power plays and ultimatums to meet their own needs while ignoring or devaluing the needs of others
  • Cynical and skeptical of new leadership initiatives and thus focusing on protecting self-interests versus investing in organizational goals

Contributing factors to these behaviors:

The most elemental contributor to the behaviors listed above is the human brain and its instinctual responses to emotional stimuli. Our growing understanding of brain science has revealed that in prolonged, high-stress environments, humans tend to experience a reduced capacity for creative, strategic thought and collaborative action.

  • “Redline Behavior” -  Responses to Stress: Research has revealed that prolonged, low level feelings of anxiety, stress and powerlessness (gradients of fear and anger) can force the human psyche to respond with primitive survival behaviors similar to those of reptiles. Insidious and contagious, these feelings and corresponding “fight/flight” behaviors can infect a workplace and the people in it. These “redline behaviors” (as we call them) are the antithesis of collaboration. They limit our capacity for collective, creative problem solving as they increase distrust of others and draw forth our most primitive survival responses. In a modern day workplace, these responses show up as behaviors that include: avoiding emails and phone calls, knowledge hoarding, making ultimatums, competing internally for resources and status, callous gossiping, suspicion and distrust of others, etc.
  • Growing need for Interpersonal Skills: In addition to our behavioral responses to stress, our workplaces are changing, becoming ever more diverse and interconnected, calling for leaders and employees to become more skillful in building relationships, discovering compatibilities within difference, and promoting inclusive work environments. Proficiency in these skills requires time, attention, practice and reinforcement to take hold.  For many organizations there is too little focus on the relational aspects of working together, particularly in those with predominantly “redline” work environments.

What is needed:

Motivated leaders with limited time/resources can have the greatest leverage for change by focusing on the underlying systemic conditions rather than the surface symptoms. In our experience, teaching people to collaborate in a classroom or online will have limited results if the emotional tenor of their workplace is not addressed.  Despite good intentions, people generally revert to old behaviors when they return to an unchanged work environment. Again, the ways a leader might change a “redline” environment and increase cooperative outcomes can be found in modern brain research and behavioral modification methodologies.

  • “Greenline Behavior” - Responses to Bonding: Unlike reptiles, human beings also have the ability to bond through shared feelings of joy and grief (and gradients of these emotions: camaraderie, compassion, etc.).  Historically, this survival skill has allowed people to cooperate when confronting challenges that affect the whole community (group, organization, industry). What is less known is that this instinctual bonding occurs not because of the event itself, but through the shared emotions we experience in response to it (shared grief/pain, joy/gain, fear/anger). It is in this state of felt connection that humans bond; when feelings are shared, trust increases, fear subsides, hope emerges, and true collaboration can occur. Thus, “greenline” experiences become the gateway to optimizing our executive brain function, the neocortex—the seat of creative, strategic, and innovative thought. “Greenline” experiences are interactive, communal, compassionate and supportive. They tend to occur in groups that set aside time for: meaningful dialog about values; sharing interests and passions; naming the ground truth; honoring losses; and celebrating successes.

    When leaders invest in routine “greenline” experiences, there is often an increase in collaborative-supporting behaviors, like:
    • Displays of camaraderie and willingness to help others
    • Open expressions of diverse ideas and perspectives
    • Spontaneous examples of cooperation & creativity to address immediate issues
    • Improved aptitude for listening to the viewpoints of others
    • Willingness to share knowledge and generate ideas for mutual gain/success
    • Clarity and rigor around strategic, long-term planning efforts
    • Laughter, honest conversation and greater acceptance of differences in others


  • Developing New Behaviors—practice, practice, practice: New behaviors will only become habits if they are practiced and reinforced regularly. Our conduct tends to be automatic and routine, so establishing new habits and behaviors takes discipline and focus (e.g. health related exercise routines). Basic skills can be taught, but the real value comes from opportunities to practice and reflect upon those experiences with others—the failures and successes. Leaders who want to see greater collaboration in their teams/organizations must make time for people to identify and deliberately practice desired behaviors and activities to make collaboration a regular part of the job. Since collaboration implies working with others, many of the needed behaviors are relational, and require improved capacity to include and interact effectively with diverse groups of people.

What we offer:

GLI facilitators are expert in human dynamics, and understand how to access and leverage our innate human capacity to bond with others in order to reach for something greater than ourselves. We facilitate participatory, highly interactive experiences with our clients that yield:

  • An engaged and connected workforce
  • Clear, common understanding of the challenges and opportunities being faced by the organization
  • Powerful, collective, strategic thinking about ways to mitigate the challenges and maximize the opportunities
  • Concerted action in service of important goals
  • Long term culture change aligned with client desires

Learn more about our service offerings.

Also see our listing of Resources & Publications for more information.