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By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute

Perhaps it seems insane to be talking about hiring now when the headlines are monopolized by reports of layoffs, plant closings and corporate bankruptcies. But when the economy picks up and people are hiring again, they will be too busy to reflect on how they can build a more collaborative working environment. Now is the time to think about and prepare to do things better when the opportunity arises.

That means the importance of collaboration in the workplace has to be considered more than ever before.

As expected levels of market and client responsiveness continue to rise, barriers are necessarily coming down between individuals, offices, departments and divisions — as well as between vendors and clients, sometimes even competitors. To a growing extent, organizational success — whether it’s in the for-profit or not-for-profit sectors — depends on the ability of the organization’s members to work together, share information, build collaborative networks and handle conflict in productive ways.

In this environment, leadership aptitude is important at all levels of the organization because opportunities for chaos are everywhere. But erecting a command and control culture is not the answer. Rather, effective leaders construct an organizational ethos in which collaboration is both valued and rewarded. What’s clear is that highly collaborative environments don’t just happen. Even an organization as small as a marriage requires effort from its participants. And the failure rates of marriage suggest that Americans, in particular, may be so individualistic that we may struggle with collaborative processes even at the most basic levels of organization.

Some experts suggest that building a collaborative environment begins with hiring for the skill. Good thought. But as soon as we start to unpack how that process works, we discover that the best techniques for hiring people with collaborative skills assume a pre-existing collaborative working environment. In such an environment several people in various levels of responsibility will meet, interact with and help evaluate a candidate. During formal interviews, candidates are asked to recall and/or respond to realistic work scenarios to see if they think in collaborative ways.

But hiring for collaborative skills is not enough because research shows that new hires will quickly adapt to the environment they find on the job. If it’s a highly competitive, dog-eat-dog environment, bright people will quickly begin behaving in more competitive, win-lose ways. In contrast, better teamwork can be fostered by offering new people mentors and helping them build broad social networks throughout the work place.

There are many things that can be done to foster a collaborative culture, but there is one thing that must be done. Collaborative behavior must be recognized and rewarded. Companies that evaluate and compensate only for individual performance will always struggle with building high performing teams and collaborative workplaces. It’s yet another instance of the ancient Law of Agriculture coming to the fore: you get what you plant.

If you plant collaborative seeds in collaborative soil and reward collaborative behaviors, your harvest will be more and better collaboration across the board. But if you recognize and reward only individual initiative, you’ll end up with a lot of Lone Rangers competing for the credit and the cash at stake.

That’s just another way of saying we generally get what we pay for.

Copyright © 2009 Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute, 208 E. North St., Durand, IL 61024. Any part of this newsletter may be reproduced so long as there is full attribution, our web site is listed, and any electronic reproduction includes a link to our site: http://www.yeshualeader.com.

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