By Maren Lythgoe
Director of Enrollment Management
Collaboration and culture. In graduate school, I jokingly thought I would get an A on every assignment, paper, or presentation if I included recommendations for improvement in collaboration and culture.
Guess what? It’s no joke. Ten years after graduation, I’m still using those two “C’s” in my everyday work. Any group or organization that collaborates and has an inclusive culture is on the road to success.
Many of us believe we collaborate, but do we really? In my experience, true collaboration begins with the right team members. Make sure to include the following:
- The hard-to-work-with, negative person. They’ll point out all the problems.
- Someone with outlandish ideas that drives a realist crazy. They’ll focus on the dream.
- Colleagues from different backgrounds, belief systems, and lived experiences. They’ll provide valuable viewpoints.
Here’s what to expect:
- More tension
- Probably more time
- Maybe a mediator
- Possible tears
- A “good dollop of sheer doggedness,” according to Walsh and Kahn’s book “Collaborative Working in Higher Education: The Social Academy.”
Here’s what you’ll end up with:
- Shared understanding and vocabulary
- An inclusive policy or process
- Removal of potential pitfalls
- Less duplication of efforts
- Buy-in and support
- Sharing of scarce resources
And the biggest benefit? For me, it’s been trust. Trust in colleagues. Trust in the process. Trust that the outcome will serve the intended purpose, and if it doesn’t, trust to go back to the drawing board as a team instead of pointing fingers.
When collaboration happens, trust is developed, and trust enhances the culture.
Which brings me to the second “C”…
I like Edgar H. Schein’s definition of culture in his book Organizational Culture and Leadership: the “accumulated shared learning of [a] group as it solves its problems” . This accumulated, shared learning becomes the norm, and shapes assumptions, policies, and roles. Because of its overarching reach, culture is critical.
Is your culture toxic? Outdated? Cliquish? Improving a culture – specifically to become more inclusive, welcoming, and innovative – takes an honest assessment of the current culture. Changing culture for the better requires “a period of unlearning that is psychologically painful.” Like collaborating, the process of changing a culture can cause tension and take more time than expected.
I’ve been lucky enough to experience both positive and negative cultures, and observe leaders as they change existing cultures for the better. Time, focus, and inclusion are success factors, but I believe the biggest factor is listening. A leader or colleague who takes the time to listen to the good, the bad, and the ugly will learn to truly understand what drives their team and promote success. Listen to your colleagues. Listen to your stakeholders. Listen to the data. Listen to the majority and the marginalized, the negative reviews and the accolades. They are all valid. The “ability to see and acknowledge the full complexity of problems becomes critical” to improvement. The successful leaders I’ve observed took the knowledge they gained from listening and moved forward positively, with – you guessed it – collaboration.
Collaboration and culture. They are connected in so many ways. I don’t know what the other letters in “success” stand for, but I’m sure about the two C’s.