Can Collaboration Prevail?

by  Susan Mazza  |  Leadership Development

The abilities to both compete and collaborate are clearly keys to success in today’s world.  Yet it seems our education and corporate systems continue to be designed to foster more competition than collaboration.

One example in our schools of an attempt to foster collaborative behavior is assigning a group project.  Some teachers do a better job than others to support the group in truly collaborating and teach students how to work together and hold each other accountable for contributing.  But more often than not the focus is on the grade each individual takes away, not the way the group worked together or didn’t and what can be learned from the process.

If you participate in sports or academic competition you have the opportunity to learn about teamwork, but there are a lot of kids who never have that inclination or opportunity.  Also, in the absence of a strong coach, the more talented participants can often get away with being a poor team player in service of winning the game.  Great collaboration isn’t always essential to winning the game.  And let’s face it, where you go once you graduate is ultimately dependent on your individual achievement.

We carry that context, intentionally or not, into the workplace.

Being part of the same company or organization does not automatically create an experience of being on the same team.  In corporations multidisciplinary and cross functional teams are often formed with the best of intentions and highest of hopes.  Yet the culture, fueled by the organizational structure and reward system, significantly impacts just how effective those teams are at collaborating, and can easily become the lid on the potential of the team.  In a hierarchical organization structure with an individually driven reward system (or a reward system that unwittingly pits one part of an organization against another), effective collaboration can be very difficult to achieve.

There also seems to be a pervasive yet unexamined belief in organizations that a team of talented and intelligent individuals will naturally form an intelligent and talented team.  Yet any group as a whole will never deliver anything greater than the sum of the individual contributions, and will likely deliver even less, unless there are two key ingredients – a shared commitment to a clear and meaningful goal and leadership.

On the other hand there are those who are lucky enough to experience the extraordinary intrinsic rewards of being part of a team, whether they experience it in school or at work.  Ultimately the drive for collaboration is fueled by a deep desire to be a part of something larger and more significant than ourselves.  While winning feels great, I believe that desire for many people is a desire for much more than just winning.

There will always be people who just want to belong and will fight hard for the status quo so they can keep on belonging.  There will always be those who are primarily motivated by winning and/or individual achievement.  The human systems we have designed will likely continue to reward these values for some time to come.  Yet there is a groundswell of people who are focusing on contributing the best of what they have to offer and who want to create extraordinary value with others.  That is what gives me hope that we can and will continue to forge ahead to find new and better ways to collaborate to do extraordinary things.

Can collaborative behavior prevail?  Not only do I think it can, I believe it will be the hallmark of successful organizations of the future.

Perhaps a more pressing question at hand today is this:  How can we achieve greater levels of collaboration in a system in which extrinsic rewards and individual achievement continue to be the focus?

What do you think?


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About The Author

Articles By susan-mazza
Susan Mazza works with leaders and their organizations to transform their performance from solid to exceptional as a business consultant, leadership coach and motivational speaker. CEO of Clarus-WORKS, Founder/Author of Random Acts of Leadership™, and Co-Author of The Character-Based Leader, Susan was named one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders by Trust Across America in 2013.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Dan Rockwell  |  25 Apr 2011  |  Reply

Hi Susan,

Thanks for your post.

I suggest we can encourage collaboration is by rewarding collaboration. Most reward systems are designed to point out individuals rather than teams.

The on going struggles include inclinations for some to let others do the work and group think. The only way to address these issues is facing them head on. In this case Collaboration takes intentional, highly focused training, courage, direction, and support from the entire organization.

Best Regards,


Susan Mazza  |  25 Apr 2011  |  Reply

Thanks for your comment Dan. I agree that rewards are key. Yet I also think we need to look beyond purely extrinsic rewards and find ways to tell the stories that bring to life the more intrinsic rewards of collaboration so people begin to naturally seek opportunities to collaborate.

I’ve seen quite a few people raise their hand to be on a special project team because it was believed to be good for their career, not because they had any interest in being part of the team or in collaborating with others.

Redge  |  25 Apr 2011  |  Reply

I agree that collaboration will prevail. Your post addresses teams and internal “collaboration”, however, I think we need to look beyond the walls of the organization as well.

I think opportunities exist for companies / corporations to collaborate as many have established their respective niches that can contribute to the overall success of a larger, more complex, project. I think of the Canadian Robotic Arm used on the Shuttle missions, Intel computer chips, automotive suppliers and so on.

Although some of these relationships are strictly buyer-seller oriented, others are not. When I take a look at some online communities such as Daily Dose of Excel, individuals from “competing” and independent businesses openly share thoughts, ideas, and programming code to advance the cause of all – including their readers.

I can certainly appreciate the concerns that may exist with current reward systems and agree that must be addressed. However, I think these are easily resolved in the greater scheme of things.

One of the traits that drives the success and resilience of Toyota is the focus on a greater vision that unites the team to a common cause and beyond the realm of personal gain. Perhaps the military serves as a good example of winning the war while recognizing individual effort as well.

Great post!

Susan Mazza  |  25 Apr 2011  |  Reply

Thanks for expanding the conversation Redge to outside the corporate walls. I absolutely agree the conversation is much bigger and I appreciate you providing such great examples.

Although I am not so sure the barriers to collaboration are as you put it “easily resolved in the greater scheme of things”. Unless of course you mean by greater scheme of things that those who truly embrace collaboration will be much more likely to succeed. Time will tell. Old contexts tend to die hard and require mindful and persistent intervention to change.

You also have me wondering whether the barriers to internal collaboration that are pointed to here are as strongly rooted in other kinds of collaborations? Thanks for the food for thought!

Ben Ziegler  |  25 Apr 2011  |  Reply

Nice post Susan & follow-on discussion. To answer your question re: paradox of individual vs. collective rewards… From a WIFM perspective, we all want to be recognized for our contributions. Yet, an even more basic need is one of belonging. If leaders tell more stories that honor the value of the team, that is one way to nurture an organizational culture of collaboration. Its through that shared culture, individuals will more readily show humility re: their own accomplishments, and acknowledge the team angle.

Susan Mazza  |  26 Apr 2011  |  Reply

Excellent point Ben – storytelling is a great strategy for “nurturing the culture of collaboration” now. Building on your connection between the basic human need for belonging and the power of story telling, storytelling is a way to tap into that human need for belonging that can take us out of the survival mode of protecting the status quo (so we can belong, keep our jobs, hide in the perceived safety of what we know, etc) and connect us to something much more meaningful that makes it worth risking the comfort of the familiar.

John Wenger  |  25 Apr 2011  |  Reply

Susan, I enjoyed reading your post!

You say, “Can collaborative behavior prevail? Not only do I think it can, I believe it will be the hallmark of successful organizations of the future.”

Thinking bigger than the workplace, I’d go even further and say that collaboration is an absolute imperative for the survival of the human race. Until we, as a race, stop the daily hating and interpersonal violence that goes on everywhere, we will doom ourselves to ‘mutually assured destruction’. Sad to say that that expression did not go away with the de-escalation of the Cold War.

…and like you, I also think it CAN prevail. I have immense hope for us humans and I get particularly excited when I’m running one of our leadership development programmes. When I see leaders take up the challenge to extend themselves (not for the faint-hearted), I think that things are really changing for the better, one leader at at time.

Susan Mazza  |  26 Apr 2011  |  Reply

Thanks John for emphasizing the bigger picture of the imperative for collaboration as well as the message of hope.

I share this experience and sentiment: “When I see leaders take up the challenge to extend themselves (not for the faint-hearted), I think that things are really changing for the better, one leader at at time.” I think this is what the Lead Change Group is all about.

Georgia Feiste  |  29 Apr 2011  |  Reply

Where would we be without collaboration? Successful departments, divisions and companies know that when we listen to each other, and collaborate on the very best ideas from everyone in the group that we come up with the best possible solution.

Collaboration will prevail – without it, what is the alternative?


Susan Mazza  |  03 May 2011  |  Reply

Good question! Where would we be? i do think many organizations could be a lot further along an/or far more effective though if they truly embraced collaborative practices. There remains a big gap between “knowing” and “doing” when it comes to collaboration.

Amanda Hebner  |  02 May 2011  |  Reply

I appreciate your post and think that you make some great points. I think that there is so much to be gained through collaboration instead of competition, but until we can move past the idea that in order for there to be a winner, there must be a loser, it will be difficult. I also think if leaders would see their success through the success of others there would be more collaboration. We tend to think that our success is deemed through what we achieve, but for those that invest is others achievements, they gain a much greater since of success. We have to stop looking at the direct result and instead see that sometimes our results and rewards come in less direct ways. Keep encouraging people to think differently.

Susan Mazza  |  03 May 2011  |  Reply

Excellent points Amanda. This statement really resonates with me: “for those that invest is others achievements, they gain a much greater sense of success”

To your point about results and rewards coming in indirect ways – I agree we need to broaden our ability to perceive results beyond traditional metrics. At the end of the day we may not be able to “count” every result, but every result does count!

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