Article (March-2017)


Making competing employees collaborate

Sunil Dubey

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We live in a world where we invariably hire for functional competence and fire employees when they fail to manage people-dynamics. At workplace, common-sight is people who bully, disrespect, defect, demean and demotivate each other. But why is it that many people find it difficult to "work with and through people"? When a project succeeds, many people stake their claim and this tendency makes employees fiercely competitive - everyone aims for maximum credit points.

In this context workplace collaboration is a misnomer in many ways. First, because, employees constantly remain aware that they form a part of single bell-curve) and hence invariably compete for top ratings. Competing people often face prisoner's dilemma wherein everyone wants greater piece of the pie of a zero sum game. Second, it is difficult to collaborate because lot of bright employees makes their peers and superiors jittery - peers and superiors, who are subject to 7 deadly sins.

Now, with some learning and a few empirical evidences collected over the years, here are five cardinal rules of competing employees' collaboration:

1. Hire those who keep organization before self… hire people with strong value system…
Easier said than done, but not impossible. Give each hiring manager an inventory of tricky questions to assess core-values - "cost-cutting vs job-cuts" or perhaps "shutting down a store vs attempting once more" or may be "when did you feel most alive" or "under what circumstances you would ignore a customer complaint" or "when did you last time did something selflessly" or "job vs passion; and why" or "what's that one thing you learnt from your team member, in the last quarter" . Bring-in personal value tests into hiring process and make them non-negotiable.

Undue weightage to functional competencies is a sure way of killing efficiencies; hence humane-factors deserve  a lot more importance than they currently do. While you hire, know that one's value-system is a reflection of 20-30 years of life-experiences therefore, the only way out is to hire people who bring-along strong sense of values. Hire those who are more humane and less edgy, those who are witty and forgiving; those who are not just task-masters but enablers.

The CXO machinery has a lot of role to play here by doing the following:
-    Hire middle-rung of leaders who have great people skills, are extremely value-based and ethical.

-    Hire those who have strong sense of respect for diversity of thought & action.

-    Deploy Google rules of hiring - Hire those who are better than you; who can inspire you and those who carry a lot of passion in general.

2. Deploy HR policies that promote collaboration
Yes, there are HR policies that can ensure a collaborative workplace. A recent experiment proved very successful when employees helped colleagues in distress by using 'Leave Donation Policy'. Another HR practice recognized employees when they helped newcomers assimilate faster at workplace. Deploying "Peer Nomination Process" into L&D interventions was another small experiment that gave great results.

3 Create some great sub-cultures of:

Open communication
The biggest of our follies is that we want a certain behavior to thrive but don't deploy enough communication around it. Let us have a quick litmus test: 

-    When did you last time share an inspiring story with your people on collaboration which took place right there? 

-    When did you appreciate a team last time for their obsession with pulling it through together?

Sometimes people need readymade tools to refer to when they want to collaborate, and in that sense having a stated set of core-values would help a great deal, therefore: 

-    Create and cascade set of core values. 

-    Help top brass showcase behaviors which are worth emulating. Remind them - "Have you helped someone today?" or "Did you appreciate someone?" Remind them the old hindi phrase "Yatha Raja, Tatha Praja".
-    CXOs to relentlessly kill silos, encourage open communication.

-    Ask people to collaborate with each other - just don't leave it to commonsense. 

Information sharing 
Lack of information sharing is a typical sign of non-collaborative workplace. Create a culture of 'purposeful conversations' - create platforms where people can share knowledge and feel gratified. Create a workplace where pertinent information is available to all and employees don't feel held hostage due to artificial deficit of information.  

Taking criticism positively 
A few years ago we institutionalized a simple 360 degree feedback mechanism but in a more humane way. Members of a workgroup (of 20-25 people) were asked to give confidential feedback (one strength and one development area) about every other member of the workgroup. Head of the department then collated the feedback and kept it ready for discussion. Each week, one person had to occupy the hot-seat and was told how their colleagues understood them to be. Employee was supposed to focus on strengths and remain aware of improvement areas.

This exercise calibrated people and made them open to receive feedback. Interestingly it led to a lot of openness around; leading to greater collaboration.  The opposite of it is a defensive culture and "Being defensive" destroys collaboration at workplace. Spend another 15 minutes by tuning-in to a TED-Talk by Jim W Tamm, a former judge (from USA) on the troubles that defensive people create. 

4. People mostly compete for recognition, so be mindful while handling this piece
First thumb rule is to take the money out of recognition machinery. Harvard Asst Professor Ian Larkin says that "the introduction of monetary rewards… may also "crowd out" intrinsic or other non-reward based motivation" (Amabile 1993, Deci et al. 1999). This deduction is profound in many ways and can become the cornerstone of all reward and recognition schemes. 
Many recognition schemes are flawed in the sense that it is not difficult to predict first 5-winners as soon as the scheme is announced. Also, a lot of such schemes unnecessarily make people 'defect', rather than to 'collaborate'. People become prone to defect when:

-    They see scheme to be non-transparent.

-    Scheme construct to be faulty  - for example, when "Quality Team" alone gets recognized for quality improvement, whereas quality is everyone's job.

-    When they know that they can win by achieving individual goals even when organizational goal is defeated.

So, when you want competition for recognition to produce collaboration, follow these simple rules:

-    Have more team awards than individual awards.

-    Keep solid weightage towards participation, learning and how team achieved the results.

-    Create several cross functional projects and keep a dedicated team to observe the success of it. 

5. Create a predominantly psychological contract rather than an economic contract 
"Psychological contract" is the relationship between an employer and an employee having unwritten mutual expectations (Argyris 1960, Rousseau, D. M. in 1989). Such a contract is therefore defined as a philosophy and not a formula, which is characterized through the qualities like respect, compassion, objectivity, and trust. 
A strong psychological contract delivers team-culture where people win and lose together. Before you deploy any such effort, practitioners should refer to a beautiful case-study by Harvard Business School - PPG: Developing a Self-Directed Work Force (A), Harvard Business School 9693020, which dwells into this dimension in detail.
Activities like volunteering, community service etc create a very strong psychological contract. Provide employees with community service and volunteering avenues - avenues which are more than just payroll giving. Empirical evidence says that people return full with gratitude towards life, post a volunteering work. They feel blessed for what they have - and people, in-general, become far more giving. 

How do we make people follow these 5-cardinal rules?
Implementation of these 5 cardinal rules requires all of your 5-senses working in tandem. In order to implement 1st rule, you need to smell-in only the right people. Subsequently, while deploying HR policies, touch the right chords with people. Creating much great sub-culture would require a lot of listening first. Recognize your people so that they taste their success and learn to collaborate. And finally, work towards creating a bond which can't be seen - a psychological bond.

Tell people that you are depending heavily on them for the creation of desired culture. Tell them, that they are the agents of change. Don't shy away, even if you have to say all of it thrice a day.