why your team won't collaborate and what to do about it

Why Your Team Won’t Collaborate (and What To Do About It)

“I’m sick of this crap! My team won’t collaborate – why can’t they just figure this out?”

Scott was CEO of an engineering firm that produced communications hardware and software for industries around the globe.

He had worked hard with his board and senior leadership team to settle on their strategic M.I.T. for the next 18 months. They needed to launch a new product to remain competitive in a market they had once led.

He held a company meeting where he made the goal painfully clear to everyone in the room. “We need to get this new product to market by this deadline, or we’re out of business in five years.”

Within six weeks he was exasperated. His people were at war with one another. Several senior VPs were about to quit and the do-or-die deadline was looking like a dream.

We see this frequently: leaders lay out a clear M.I.T. (for more on the Most Important Thing), they check for understanding, and they turn their people loose to get after it.

Before too long, customer service and sales are at each other’s throats. Engineering and marketing are having shouting matches in the halls while finance and human resources won’t talk at all.

When their team won’t collaborate we’ve watched executives get frustrated and shout, “Why can’t you guys figure this out? Just work together and solve the problem!”

Maybe you’re a frontline leader and you’ve worked hard to establish a clear, shared team vision and the M.I.T. initiative for this quarter, but your team ends up squabbling.

Why Your Team Won’t Collaborate

When your people can’t unify in pursuit of a common, clearly established goal, the problem is usually that you’ve only established 50% clarity.

You’ve clarified results, but you haven’t clarified relationships – and that is frequently why your team won’t collaborate.

In Scott’s case (and this is VERY common) he had made the new product a priority, but was still evaluating individual departments based on other criteria.

For instance, customer service was evaluated on their ability to retain customers, but at the same time, engineering was all but ignoring response-to-existing-customer requests in favor of getting the new product to market. So customer service naturally saw stubborn engineering as a threat to their bonuses and even employment.

Customer service continually requested that sales lend some of their people to try to save existing accounts. Sales people were being assessed on quotas that were unrelated to the new product’s launch.

In short, everyone was doing what made the most sense for their individual success and was frustrated that their colleagues wouldn’t cooperate.

Scott had defined an overarching goal, but had left the organizational systems and processes untouched.

Those systems and processes were built to achieve different goals.

When his people came to him and asked whether the engineering prioritization of new product over customer retention was okay, he got frustrated. “Why can’t they just figure it out?”

The answer: Because he’d given them conflicting goals.

What To Do About It When Your Team Won’t Collaborate

Real teams succeed or fail together. They have a clear goal and they all have a clear role to play in achieving it.

Effective leaders establish clarity of results and relationships.

Clarity of results is often easier to define:

  • What’s the M.I.T. we must accomplish this year?
  • What are our three most important strategic M.I.T. initiatives?
  • What are the M.I.T. behaviors we need at the executive, manager, and frontline levels?

Clarity of relationships, however, requires you to address some additional questions:

  • How are roles and handoffs defined and communicated?
  • How do department or individual team member priorities align with M.I.T. initiatives?
  • What are the most important values, systems, and processes guiding everyone’s behavior?

In Scott’s case, this meant we had to ask and answer some tough questions:

  • Would customer retention goals be lowered or continue at prior levels?
  • Either way, how could these be achieved in ways that aligned with the timely new product launch?
  • How much attention should engineering give to resolving existing customer issues?
  • How would performance bonuses be changed to align with the stated M.I.T. of the new product launch?

Your Turn

If you’ve established a clear M.I.T. but people are siloed, caught in endless arguments, and the team won’t collaborate, take a hard look at the relational clarity and how you can get everyone aligned with the new goal – not just in theory, but in reality.

Leave us a comment and share your thoughts: How do you ensure that everyone on your team understands their role in achieving a shared goal?

Posted in Results & Execution, Winning Well and tagged , , , , , , .

David Dye

Author and international keynote speaker David Dye gives leaders the roadmap they need to transform results without losing their soul (or mind) in the process. He gets it because he’s been there: a former executive and elected official, David has over two decades of experience leading teams and building organizations. He is President of Let's Grow Leaders and the award-winning author of 2 books: Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul and The Seven Things Your Team Needs to Hear You Say.

2 Comments

  1. Great insights! Often, we focus on the role clarity of individual employee but no one really emphasizes relationship clarity. Relational clarity will often remove the problem of silo working ethics and enhance collaboration. However, that clarity has to become a modus operandi of how a department is designed. Thanks for sharing!

    • Well said, Itee. We find that relational clarity is frequently neglected – but essential for those transformational results!

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