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Does Your Workplace Foster Collective Intelligence?


by Edward D. Hess, author of “Hyper-Learning: How to Adapt to the Speed of Change

Why collaboration matters is a no-brainer. As skill sets become increasingly specialized and business gets more complex, multiple people must work together to problem-solve, innovate, and do all the other tasks technology can’t. (It goes without saying this needs to happen quickly.) But what we may not realize is that great collaboration isn’t just a meeting of minds. It’s a meeting of the minds, hearts, and souls.

It is that meeting of the minds, hearts, and souls that enables the highest level of collaboration, which is called “collective intelligence.” Achieving this result is highly dependent upon how “human” your workplace is.

You can’t just stick people in a room and say, ‘Okay, now collaborate!’. The environment has to be right. People have to be able to bring their best selves to work. Otherwise, fear, ego, and all kinds of other collaboration-squelching dynamics will run rampant.

In a nutshell, leaders and employees alike must be able to continuously learn, unlearn, and relearn so they can adapt to the reality of the world as it evolves. (This is the essence of Hyper-Learning.) And a big part of making this happen is creating a culture in which caring, trusting teams can come together and do their thing.

Team structures will dominate the digital age. But before they can reach the highest levels of human collaboration, team members must be able to trust leaders and each other. They must feel safe. And creating those conditions is not easy. It requires a whole new style of leadership, which is actually more like enableship.

So what about your company? Are leaders setting people up to collaborate at the highest level? Here are some observable actions to look for:

13 Signs That Your Company Is Collaboration-Friendly:

1. People feel safe to speak freely without retribution, ostracism, or punishment.

2. Employees are more interested in finding the best ideas and solutions than in competing with each other. They are there to learn, not to “win” or “be right.”

3. Leaders define the purpose of the meeting upfront. Because everyone is clear about why they are there, the team can immediately get down to work.

4. Everyone is fully present and attentive. They make eye contact and display positive body language. They avoid multi-tasking and distractions.

5. People really listen to each other and ask questions to understand each other’s positions before they tell or critique.

6. People leave their ego at the door.

7. People are respectful of each other. They care about coworkers and emotionally connect in positive ways with each other.

8. People aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo. In fact, they constantly seek ways to reinvent and disrupt themselves.

9. Leaders encourage employees to take risks (within financial parameters) and be vulnerable and transparent. In turn, employees deal with their own fear and challenge themselves in their psychologically safe work environment.

10. People are willing to ask questions and keep digging to get to the very best result — even if it means going with someone else’s idea.

11. Everyone gets a chance to speak. Younger team members and introverts are asked to speak first (this guarantees that their views are heard). And the leader always speaks last.

12. Everyone uses “Yes, and” language instead of “Yes, but.” This prevents the group or outspoken individuals from overpowering certain voices.

13. Lots of people volunteer to be on teams.

… and 10 Red Flags That Warn It May NOT Be.

1. Meeting sizes are too big to allow for effective collaboration. Smaller groups (generally, four to five people is ideal) allow for better communication and exchange of ideas.

2. There’s a sense that meetings are not really open discussions. The outcome is pre-determined and the real goal of the meeting is consent and compliance.

3. People rarely disagree or risk vulnerability (and when they do, they may be ridiculed, attacked, or punished in some other way).

4. In meetings, people may check their phones or seem distracted.

5. Certain people aggressively advocate their views and push to a conclusion quickly. They are not interested in examining all sides of the issue, and as a result, good ideas are sometimes overlooked.

6. Some people dominate the conversation, while others rarely speak. Extroverts talk over introverts, and highest-ranking people take the lead without giving lower-ranking personnel a chance to be heard.

7. People get personal in their critiques. What someone says may be used against them (a sure sign that psychological safety has not been established at the onset of the meeting — or ever!).

8. Some people refuse to budge on their positions. They are ego-driven and therefore are unable to listen to or consider other ideas or opinions.

9. There’s a lot of interrupting.

10. Instead of listening to learn, people listen to confirm.

The good news is that all companies can create conditions that foster the right kind of collaboration. But a Band-Aid approach rarely works. It takes intention, focus, and often a seismic shift in how leaders lead.


Edward D. Hess is professor of business administration, Batten Fellow, and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the Darden School of Business and the author of “Hyper-Learning: How to Adapt to the Speed of Change“. Professor Hess spent 20 years in the business world as a senior executive and has spent the last 18 years in academia. He is the author of 13 books, over 140 articles, and 60 Darden case studies.