Collaboration is typically seen as a means to achieving some discrete goal. Teamwork and cooperation can take care of much of this (if you’re not familiar with the distinction between teamwork and cooperation, read our guide). Collaboration is something else. It's a culture that exists outside of specific projects and is meant to enrich both the process and results of people working together.
This extra dimension that collaboration has, separate from teamwork and cooperation, requires strong relationships and a high degree of trust among co-workers. The thing about collaboration is that the more we do it, the better we get at it. That's because effective collaboration doesn't just need team members to share strong bonds – it strengthens those bonds. Those bonds develop as we learn more about our teammates through collaboration.
Here are some "how’s" and "why’s" you should take to heart when learning about your collaborators.
Ask their Opinions and/or Feedback
Ask people for their opinion on an issue or for feedback. Don't ask everyone on every little thing. But take the time to get the thoughts of others, especially someone who might not normally participate in a given discussion. You never know where inspiration may come from, or what expertise or insight someone may be hiding under a bushel. If you can, post your question in the collaboration tool. It preserves the discussion for the benefit of the entire team.
Most people feel good when their opinions are sought out, especially publicly. Some don't. Either way, after you do ask, you'll learn more about them. Was their feedback helpful or surprising in any way? One of the most difficult, but most fruitful, aspects of deep collaboration is uncovering the tacit knowledge that bubbles below the surface. By asking a simple question, you might uncover unknown talents or unusual perspectives. The best form of collaboration taps into all the formal and informal contributions people have to make.
In addition to the substance of their answer, you'll also learn how they communicate. Did they answer at all? Was their answer perfunctory or thoughtful? Where they direct, diplomatic, or vague? Noticing how people communicate helps you communicate better with them and improves your emotional intelligence about them.
Ask for their Reasons and/or Intentions
Ask somebody what their reasons were for choosing to do something a certain way. You may not want to start this conversation publicly unless you word it in a positive way (e.g., "I really like what you did there…"). Otherwise, someone may read your question as an accusation and get defensive. (Avoid using "Why did you …. ?") We're trying to strengthen work relationships, not start a ruckus. While we can certainly learn a lot about people when things get tense, that's no reason to stir the pot.
This sort of question is another way to get insight into how a teammate thinks and problem-solves. You get insight into what skills and style you might want to have on a specific team or project. Better yet, their creativity may spark some in you and help you resolve an issue or take a new approach that improves your own productivity or work product. Don't limit these questions to teammates or people doing similar work to you. Some of the best insights may come from people aren't already in your silo of "how things are done."
Notice their Behavior Under Pressure
Notice how people are in a crisis. Or even when things just aren't great. It's easy to be polite and helpful when things are good. When things get bad, it's tougher for any of us to hide our instinctual selves. Who needs extra hand-holding? Who's doing the hand-holding? Who offers practical or moral support, regardless of whether they're on that team or part of that project? Who can't see beyond their own piece of the crisis? How were different people able to climb down and get focused? Who's pointing fingers versus who's bringing a positive energy to the group?
This isn't about figuring out whom to blame, or judge harshly. Some people are naturally better in a crisis than others. Some people have more practice at it, or simply a temperament more suited to it. That's good to know. But you also want to know who could use some skill building or team support when it doesn't feel like the roof is falling so they can be stronger next time around. Because there will always be a next time.
It's Constructive — Not Creepy
Observing how employees and teammates act isn't creepy. It's not meant to be anyway. Maybe "paying attention" is better than "observing." You can't connect with people if you can't really pay attention to who they are. By being present in the moment with them, we learn much about them, and ourselves. We always show who we are in what we say (or not) and do (or not). We just need to be deliberately aware.
The purpose of noticing is to get to know our teammates in a substantive way. How they communicate, what motivates them, what their unique skill set is. Paying attention and learning about our teammates is where emotional intelligence grows, tacit knowledge gets utilized, and we learn how to deepen our collaboration.