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How to Handle a Reluctant Collaborator

November 30, 2016

How to Handle a Reluctant Collaborator

We're all collaborating now. We’re members of cross-departmental teams, ad hoc teams for special projects, teams that include internal and external personnel – however the team is made up, collaborating is now part of everyone's job description.

Not everybody's excited about that.

In fact, despite the near universal understanding of the advantages of collaboration, current research on business collaboration published in the Harvard Business Review determined that "In most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees."

Reading this carefully, they're saying the bulk of the collaboration value is coming from a minuscule portion of people at each company. Now — imagine the innovation and productivity explosion if companies could just get 10% of their people actively collaborating.

Clearly, some people are just going through the collaboration motions and letting their team members pick up the slack. Here are five types of reluctant collaborators. When you understand why they're holding back, it's easier to see how you can help them join in.

Personality Traits that Might Hold Someone Back

Every personality comes with its own strengths and weaknesses. Certain personality traits, such as the three listed below, just don't lend themselves to easy collaboration. As company and team leaders, it's part of our job to help team members grow their skills. Especially the skills they need to develop because they don't come naturally to them.

The New Kid on the Block: When someone is new to an organization or the team, it's common to feel more comfortable to listen more than talk at meetings, at least at first. In these cases, give the newbie a chance to jump in on her own. If she's staying mute a bit too long in a brainstorm or collaboration session, draw her out and ask an easy question that she can answer with no pressure.

Suffers from Group Performance Anxiety: For some people, even live-chatting on a conference call or online meeting can feel like public speaking. They don't like it. They'll avoid it at all costs. For him, don't put him on the spot unexpectedly. You can let him know before the session that you're really interested to hear his thoughts about this particular issue, or that you'll be asking directly to talk about this other issue. Whatever approach, give him a head's up and a chance to prepare what he'll say before the session.

Not a Big Picture Person: We most commonly associate collaboration with brainstorming big picture issues, and looking for the next disruptive idea. Collaboration is also sharing expertise, networks, providing practical assistance to team members who need it. If a team member really isn't a big idea person, but she's collaborating in other ways – recognize and appreciate where she is adding value.

Intentional Non-Collaborators

We've all got them. We've all worked with them. And they're often the most frustrating of all.

The Lazy Type: If you have an employee or team member who's generally lazy, you're probably already talking to him to remediate the situation. I'm not talking about the guy who's not fulfilling his role. Here, I'm talking about the person who does his job, exactly what's asked of him – but no more and no less. He doesn't go the extra mile. He doesn't reach out to help others, although he'll gladly accept help whenever it's offered.

The Expertise Hoarder: As the roles in the workplace become more specialized, more team members than ever possess and grow their specialized knowledge upon which the team relies. The expertise hoarder may like being the center of attention. Perhaps she likes being the gatekeeper. And although she absorbed that book about how making yourself indispensable can ensure job security, she's missed the bigger point. Whatever her reasons, the team needs her to be more available, to share her expertise with others sufficiently so she can also become a resource for the team.

You have similar options to get the Lazy Type and Expertise Hoarder to collaborate more often, and more effectively.

  1. Make pro-active collaboration an explicit part of their job responsibilities and performance evaluation. An employee engagement firm surveyed 200,000+ employees from more than 500 organizations to find out what motivates employees to go that extra mile. The second most common influencer, with 17% selecting it as their main motivator, is the intrinsic desire to do a good job.
  2. These particular types of reluctant collaborators do want to do a good job. They just have a narrow understanding of what you deem is a "good job." So expand their horizons. If a project gets stalled because the Expertise Hoarder is a bottleneck or the Lazy Guy didn't offer an extra pair of hands when needed, hold them accountable for that.
  3. Publicly praise both these types when do they do collaborate as you'd wish. And be pro-active with them. If they won't offer help, encourage team members to actively seek them out. Pull them into the team (even if kicking and screaming). "Can't help, don't have time to help, nothing to contribute" and similar reactions are not acceptable answers. The deeper sense of camaraderie they come to feel after helping their team can become addictive. In fact, having a sense of camaraderie and peer motivation was the motivator selected most often in the employee study, with 20% of them selecting it as their prime motivator to contribute.

Set the Example and the Bar: Non-Collaboration is Unacceptable

Reluctant collaborators are more than individual obstacles. When you tacitly accept their behavior, they become the example. That makes it easier for other team members to dial back their own participation.

When you're trying to create a culture of collaboration at your company, you must get the reluctant collaborators on board. Or accept the status quo. For me, that's a slow death I refuse to experience. What about you?