How can international companies foster a culture of collaboration?

Published on October 1st, 2021

Human beings want to be loved, want affirmation and want to be told they are brilliant. We are inherently selfish and don’t want to share. Collaboration requires us to accept that sometimes other people know better, it forces us to share the glory of success, and compels us to let go of control.

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Castle, toys and sharing

The saying, ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle’ is true of all of us – we don’t want to share, and only do it when we have no other option. It is not a coincidence that parents invest time and effort in helping their children share toys and play with others. It doesn’t come easily. 

And it’s no different in business. Pearl Zhu, the author, entrepreneur and digital leadership guru, wrote in her book “The Future of the CIO”,

Silo [working] builds the wall in people’s minds and creates the barrier in organizations’ hearts.’ The inability to collaborate effectively is one of the biggest drains on organizational resources and consequently success.

The inability to collaborate effectively hurts businesses and prevents us from growing ourselves to reach our own potential. Human beings evolved partly as a result of the ability to work together in teams. But for some reason, at work, we put aside our evolutionary instincts and find it hard to share with others.  

Willing and Able

For collaboration to be effective, we need to examine willingness and ability: 

  • Ability to share information and involve others 
  • Willingness to share information and involve others 

So firstly, ability. Do you have the tools and knowledge in place to encourage sharing and cooperation? Human beings are very much like a stream in the mountains: they follow the path of least resistance taking the easiest way down the hill. The role of a leader is to make it easier to share with a team member than not; easier to involve others than work alone. 

You’ll need the tech tools – whether SharePoint, Slack, Teams, or Google Drive or whatever sharing platform you have and the will to use them as default. You’ll probably want to encourage the use of instant chat and video calls to ease the communication and some of the hundreds of online tools that allow us to plan, manage and track shared workflows and processes. 

Human error

Although that may require a bit of training and possibly time to get set up, creating the ability to collaborate is the easy part. There is a trend that we overlook: human error is the cause of 92% of all workplace accidents, 95% of all data security breaches and 81% of defects in production lines. We can provide the best, most intuitive tools available, but if we haven’t dealt with the human factor, collaboration is not going to happen. 

We must position collaboration as something that people want to happen, that will make their lives easier. Often, we don’t work together because we are concerned that sharing puts us at risk, makes us less important. When a sales team gets bonuses for exceeding monthly sales targets, they want to sell as much as possible; the product team get bonuses for reliability and cost-awareness, so they want to be methodical and take things slow. There is no common ground to ease collaboration. 

Look for commonalities and set collective, cross-functional objectives that are meaningful to the entire team. Set targets that encourage people to enable others, or which build mutual dependence.  

The culture in collaboration

We must also consider the impact of culture. Our cultural preferences determine our natural comfort with team-working, collaboration and cooperation. People with a task focus will primarily want to get the job done and will allow a relationship to develop if it’s needed to complete the task; at the other end of the scale, relationship-oriented workers will be more comfortable establishing the relationship and trust first.  

In many ways, task-oriented team members may be better at collaborating than relationship-builders – they are prepared to see the value of involving others’ contribution as a way to achieve a goal. A relationship-oriented worker may be more discerning about the quality of the relationship and whether the collaborator meets their internal criteria for trust. 

As the leader, you will need to encourage relationship-oriented staff to use the task as the way of building the relationship; and for your task-focused workers, help them to see the value others have in achieving the shared end-goal. 

A simpler dimension to discern is the individual-group dimension. People with a leaning towards a group orientation are comfortable working with others; sharing and cooperating is their natural preference. We will need to coach individual-oriented people more carefully, demonstrating the ‘what’s in it for me’ equation as something beneficial to them.  

Trust and leadership culture

We also need to consider trust as a key component in collaboration. Horizontal, peer-to-peer trust will be the day-to-day practical grease that simplifies cooperation and team-working and vertical trust that reassures me that I am not at risk if someone else messes up. Leadership culture here is key – do the individuals in your team believe that collaborating with others will help them progress or will it hurt them? Showing that you encourage and recognize good collaborators is potentially the most effective way for international companies to foster a culture of collaboration.  

Standard rope is made up of three strands. Each strand is made up of thousands of tiny fibers, each of which can barely support two or three grammes of weight. When made into a three-strand rope, they can support 4,000kg. That is why collaboration is a vital performance indicator in any organization. We cannot hope to have an effective business if we can’t rely on the people to work together.


Matthew MacLachlan is a well published, leading expert in the field of cultural intelligence, global leadership and organisational development.

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