Embracing the Collaboration Economy

Posted on October 17, 2013. Filed under: Tara Neven | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Business strategist Tara Neven is the Co-Founder and Director of neuresource group, the sister company of NeuroCapability. In this article, she shows that, although we are raised to compete, we are born to collaborate. This is good news since collaboration is an important driver of productivity.



If your upbringing was anything like mine, you were raised to be competitive. Either in a team or individually at school, in sports, and then right through to business experiences, we are taught to pit ourselves against the opposition.

However, since the turn of the millennium, the world has started undergoing a major transformation–economically, politically, socially, physically and culturally. Power is shifting and the physical marketplace is changing to a virtual one. Both businesses and consumers are looking for more sustainable alternatives. For small to medium businesses, this could be the difference between survival and failure.

Collaborative Spirit

We are entering an economic environment where collaborative spirit is allowing businesses to compete with their larger counterparts. By combining synergistic products and services to their clients, businesses can compete without having to invest the capital expenditure to do it all themselves. An article by Kellog School of Management on the collaboration economy stated that “we are entering an economic era where people and organisations are connecting and interconnecting ever more quickly and fluidly”.

SKY IND - CONNECTCollaboration isn’t a new economic school of thought. For some time, practical benefits have existed for business owners that think outside the box and work with others.  However, now collaboration is an imperative. It provides cost savings and economies of scale through distribution of labor, access to networks, and knowledge sharing that fuels innovation. Our businesses become leaner and fitter through collaboration.

A 2013 study undertaken by the University of Queensland Business School in conjunction with Ernst & Young defines collaboration as “the ability of the various players in the industry to design healthy, dynamic and resilient interconnected networks, capable of mobilising the right resources at the right time, to execute and innovate as hurdles emerge.”

The study revealed that collaboration with another firm in the same line of business was most important in terms of productivity. They also found that each additional collaboration with another firm in the same line of business increased by up to four times the odds of seeing productivity gains.  This finding is significant.

Born to collaborate

While we are raised to compete, we are actually born to collaborate. The brain is a social organ, after all, and we are designed to connect. So, while it might take a bit of effort to retrain how we think about collaboration, the good news is that we are predisposed towards it.

Some ways to work towards building a collaborative vision in your businesses is through building your networks. Seek out inspiration and support from like minded businesses where you can share challenges and brainstorm solutions.

Symbiotic selling is another effective technique where businesses that have a shared customer base participate in joint marketing opportunities. Informal alliances bring new value to current customers, as well as expand visibility with new audiences. A colleague of mine in a regional town became so frustrated by commercial lease rates that she brought together a group of businesses and purchased a building together. Shared ownership of capital expenses and shared purchasing agreements is another powerful and effective way to work the collaboration economy.

At the same time, effective collaboration requires good judgment and the right context. Some leaders make the mistake of thinking that collaboration will automatically (or magically!) happen just because it’s identified as a goal. The trend towards open plan office spaces is a case in point. Many organisations adopted this fit out thinking better collaboration would follow. Instead, they found that while an open office plan indeed helped with certain tasks, it was actually counter-productive overall.

In his book CollaborationUC Berkeley professor Morten Hansen argues that leaders can even sabotage themselves by promoting more collaboration in their organization. According to Hansen, in their “eagerness to get people to tear down silos and work in cross-unit teams, leaders often forget that the goal of collaboration is not collaboration itself, but results”. Leaders need to think differently, focusing on what Hansen calls disciplined collaboration.

Case Study

sony v apple

Hanson illustrates the value of disciplined collaboration by tracing the success of Apple’s iPod music player with the belated launch of a similar product by Sony. He notes that it took Apple just eight months starting from scratch to collaborate across its organization and find a way to create the iPod. Sony, on the other hand, spent three years engaged in internal infighting before launching a competing MP3 player that had little success.

Apple did not win because it had better technology. In fact, Apple actually sourced the iPod battery from Sony. The success of the iPod relates more to Apple’s ability to manage rapid innovation through excellent internal and external collaborative networks. At Sony, the culture encouraged internal competition over collaboration. A digital music player did not make as much sense from a profit and loss standpoint for any individual business unit. As a result, the project did not move forward, even though it held the potential to deliver large benefits for the entire organization.

In short, by seeing colleagues, other departments, and fellow businesses as partners rather than as competitors, leaders can harness the power of the collective to attract customers, seek inspiration, innovate, and help their overall bottom line.

Collaboration is the new competition–at least when it comes to building strong, innovative businesses.


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Tara Neven is the Co-Founder and Director of neuresource group, a venture she formed with Linda Ray in order to translate neuroscience research into cutting-edge business applications.  All neuresource group programs provide grounding in a range of learning and development solutions and are embedded with the latest insights from neuroscience.

As an entrepreneur, business strategist, facilitator, learning and development and collective leadership specialist, Tara has over 15 years experience in corporate learning and development, education, business growth and organisational development. The last 10 years of this experience has been in remote and regional areas of Australia.

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Does Collaboration Inhibit Creativity?

Posted on June 12, 2013. Filed under: Our Leaders Say | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

This week, Adair Jones, a Brainwaves for Leaders staff writer, looks at the neuroscience of collaboration and concludes that sometimes it makes sense to work alone.


Unknown artist

Unknown artist

Collaboration is all the rage. Everyone’s talking about its importance and searching for ways to do it more effectively—not only within organisations but across government, education, and industry sectors.

Recent insight into neuroscience tells us that the brain is a social organ. In a concise YouTube videoLouis Cozolino, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Pepperdine University, says that the human brain evolved to connect with other brains and that we create an internal model of the experience of those we come into contact with. Good managers intuitively understand this. They concentrate on team-building and foster collaborative workplaces. In fact, many offices are now designed without walls as vast open areas so that employees may interact freely. The ‘team’ is now centre-stage in many organisational structures. More and more, disparate and far-flung groups are asked to communicate, cooperate, work together better.

As much as the Western world values individuality, there has been a huge shift in recent decades away from what an individual might accomplish in isolation towards what groups of talented people might accomplish by pooling their knowledge, talents, insights and energy. This shift makes perfect sense in an increasingly hyperkinetic world that relies on faster, smarter technologies.

It’s worth considering, however, that we may have overshot the mark. There are times, in spite of the brain being a social organ, when collaboration is distinctly brain-unfriendly.

Emotions are contagious

Because we create an internal model of the experience of those we encounter, teams can be hijacked by negative members, affecting productivity and morale. In an article for HBR Tony Schwartz, says the emotions people bring to work are as important as their cognitive skills, and especially so for leaders. Negative emotions spread like wildfire and they’re highly toxic.

But there is something subtler at play. People are drawn to outgoing, dynamic personalities. The one who speaks the most is generally seen to be most intelligent. According to Susan Cain in an interview for Scientific American, we’re such social animals, we instinctively mimic others’ opinions, often without realizing we’re doing it. The result is that if we are always working in groups or with groups in mind, certain types will dominate and quieter voices will be less likely to be heard.

Introvert v Extrovert

bag-over-head_-Fun-Freedom-Fulfilment-Empower-7In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Cain, make a case for the contributions of introverts in a world that values extroversion more and more.

While the world is becoming more extroverted, the ratio of introverts to extroverts remains relatively steady, about one in four. These different personality types perform best in opposite circumstances and environments. According to many of the studies Cain cites in her book, introverted personalities are feeling increasingly stressed in a workplaces that are becoming less suitable to their working styles.

The greater the emphasis is on collaboration, the more likely the contributions of these workers, many of whom work best alone, will be overlooked—or perhaps not be generated in the first place.

Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There is a real need for dynamic leaders who can take a good idea and hit the ground running. But without that good idea in the first place, there is nothing to innovate. We know from neuroscience that creativity requires periods of  quiet reflection.

Offices without borders

The current focus on collaboration, adaptation, and innovation has brought about fundamental changes to the way the office looks. The rigid ‘cube farm’ of the 1990s has lost its foothold to flexible offices that encourage employees to move freely within the space.

There is a downside, however. Proximity to our colleagues makes it easier to have a spontaneous micro-meeting, but it also means we have to sit through their deconstruction of the latest television hit or their shouting matches with teenage children over the phone.

Peter Wilson, the chairman and national president of the Australian Human Resources Institute, says:

AdvertisementThere is no doubt the ‘jam the most number of people into a square metre’ approach, which was the style in the 1990s and a good part of the early millennium, has gone. It was associated with quite significant morale and productivity drops. The new wave of innovation is about activities for workers such as socialising, eating and locating themselves in all manner of different environments while they work.

The activity-based workplace is an environment with a range of different zones that support collaborative tasks and work that needs to be more contemplative, something that aligns with what we’re learning about the brain.

This new workplace design relies on cutting-edge technology to tie it all together. But creating a shiny, high-tech environment doesn’t necessarily foster better ideas or enhance collaboration.

A study undertaken by Ann Majchrzak at USC demonstrates the relationship of the physical work environment to work process. Her three-year research effort revealed that companies that reengineered their business processes, making workers more interdependent, and then supported these work processes with open, collaborative environments realized productivity increases up to a whopping 440%.

With statistics like this, many organisations have jumped on the bandwagon only to discover that placing workers in these fancy open environments does not mean they will collaborate. The key to achieving positive results is actually found in attending to work process first and then ensuring that the physical environment and the work process complement rather than compete with each other.

youtube office in San Bruno, CA

YouTube office in San Bruno, CA

Employers are still in the experimentation phase as to whether these new trends will actually work in the office.

Cain is doubtful. She draws on research to argue that the modern office has been designed exclusively for extroverted characters who thrive on the atmosphere. In contrast, open-plan office design has been a productivity disaster for quieter employees.

“If solitude is an important key to creativity, we might all want to develop a taste for it,” she argues in Quiet.

“You think we’d want to teach our kids to work independently. That we’d want to give employees plenty of privacy and autonomy. Yet increasingly we do just the opposite.”

As she terms it, the “new groupthink” places a burdensome emphasis on teamwork, nearly all of the time. In her estimation, up to 70 per cent of employees in the US spend their working day in open-plan offices of some description. The question is: Just what does this mean for creativity?

The creative process

In a recent article on innovation and the importance of collaboration, Phillip Micallef, the former executive chairman of MCA and former CEO of Malta Enterprise, makes the case for innovation being an increasingly “collaborative pursuit that runs across firms, countries and sectors”. He argues further that

successful innovation occurs through an “innovative system”, linking together the ideas, technology, finance and production networks needed to successfully develop new ideas and methods and then bring them to scale in a particular industry sector. [It] thrives through cross-cutting networks, where ideas can spread rapidly and be tested in practice by many users.

bulbs-creativity-be-taughtMicallef makes a distinction between two areas of innovation that go hand-in-hand. He argues that innovation is often equated with investing more in research to create knowledge, but that true innovation requires the application of that knowledge in new ways that create value. While he is absolutely correct in noting the importance of new knowledge, placing the emphasis on its application—the easy part—comes at the expense of new and innovative ideas being generated in the first place.

Cain’s work supports the importance of solitude to creativity. Writing for The New York Times, Cain states that “research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic.”She offers an explanation for these findings: Introverts are comfortable working alone—and solitude is a catalyst to innovation. She sites an observation by psychologist Hans Eysenck who claimed that introversion fosters creativity by “concentrating the mind on the tasks in hand, and preventing the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.”


Architects know that triangles make a structure sound. Good managers know that knowledge management and knowledge transformation require three key components. As Harold Jarche, an expert in innovation, states in a recent article, there are three types of specialists none of whom can succeed in isolation:

  • Three pencils forming a triangleThe true genius: “a person capable of having seemingly good ideas not in general circulation.” By themselves they are misunderstood.
  • A thought leader: “a highly intelligent citizen in good standing in his or her community, who understands and admires the fresh ideas of the genius, and who testifies that the genius is far from mad.” By themselves they are unsatisfied.
  • The integrator: “a person who can explain everything, no matter how complicated, to the satisfaction of most people.” By themselves they are ignored.

Jarche argues that a diversity of talents is necessary for true innovation. If one side of the ‘talent triangle’ is missing, the strength of the idea will not be best supported—indeed, the idea may never originate at all.

Acknowledging that different personality types have different roles to play and allowing each the appropriate environment to utilise their talents is critical for true innovation. There are times when we can and should collaborate productively and times when we should be wise enough to leave each other alone.




Adair Jones is a writing and communications expert with 20 years experience in a wide variety of content production.  Adair contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and online journals.  In addition, she has experience in academic and creative writing and editing. She possesses a fascination for the human brain in all its manifold aspects.



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Professional Snakes: The Neuroscience Behind the Psychopath at Work

Posted on February 8, 2013. Filed under: Our Leaders Say | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

 Adair Jones, a Neuroscience of Leadership studentshares her thoughts on the prevalence of psychopaths in the workplace. Psychopaths are good at what they do. We are all susceptible and need to protect both ourselves and our organisations from falling prey.


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While true psychopaths are rare, comprising about 1% of the population, new research shows they are flourishing at the top of the corporate ladder at a rate four times higher than the normal population. One of the reasons for this is that psychopaths tend to be charming, manipulative, ruthless, and risk-taking–qualities that easily pass for leadership in the corporate world.

Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at Cambridge University, argues that this kind of behaviour can only occur in empathy’s absence. It follows then, that by fostering empathy within an organisation can alleviate much of the damage high-functioning psychopaths unleash.

Still, it pays to know something about how psychopaths operate and what you can do as a leader to minimise their impact.

A true story

Jay was the first CEO of a new research organisation. He was young for this position, with only a few years of managerial experience, but had worked hard to establish the new company and impressed the board with his dedication and promise. One of his first objectives as CEO was to put together a stellar team. After some months, he had filled most of the positions and the organisation was running smoothly. He had recruited a number of top managers, each of whom put together excellent departments.

The final appointment was that of the CFO. During the first round of interviews, no candidate appeared that was exactly right. Jay went back to the recruitment agency for a second round. In the meantime, a week later, Bob called Jay. He had interviewed for the position in the first round and, while Jay thought his experience was strong, his gut feeling told him that there was something a little ‘off’ about Bob. Bob was a good talker, however, and in the brief phone telephone call, he disarmed Jay with his openness. Bob said he thought he was the right person for the job and asked for another chance. There was something fresh and brash about this approach, and Jay found himself agreeing to a second interview. During the follow up meeting, Bob impressed Jay in a way that he hadn’t during the first.

Screen Shot 2012-12-28 at 3.05.39 PMLong story short, Jay hired Bob. At first, everything was great. Bob hit the ground running, offered Jay a lot of good advice, helped shape the organisational vision. Before long, Jay and Bob were having long lunches on a daily basis. They talked strategy and devised a plan to commercialise the new research coming out of the organisation. To Jay, everything seemed rosy. What he didn’t see, however, was that, among the administrative staff, morale had dropped. The managers were concerned, too, feeling that they were cut off from Jay, when in the months before Bob’s arrival, there had been open communication and excellent collaboration within the organisation.

Over time, Bob solidified this division. His influence over Jay increased, and it wasn’t long before Bob was able to convince Jay to fire certain employees. Jay didn’t know this, but these people had seen through Bob’s ‘mask’. In Bob’s eyes, they had to go. Unfortunately, after that, the morale of the entire staff plummeted. No one knew if his job was safe. Bob also ingratiated himself with the board. He set up a plan to create a spin off company and proposed himself as the CEO. The board was impressed with Bob’s initiative and appointed him.

By this time, however, the board as well as the staff had lost confidence in Jay. Jay was depressed, demoralised, and managing ineffectively. It wasn’t long before Jay was asked to resign.

It took several years before Jay understood that Bob was a psychopath and that he’d been his victim. With new insight, Jay saw he’d been systematically targeted and manipulated. He recalled that, from the beginning, Bob had played on his vulnerabilities, exploited his insecurities, flattered him, divided him from trusted staff, interfered with professional alliances, manipulated the board, and exploited opportunities to his personal advantage.

The pattern

This patternfits what psychologists Robert Hare and Paul Babiak identify as the five stages the organisational psychopath undertakes in his climb to the top:

First psychopath is the entry phase, in which the psychopath charms the hiring team into selecting him or her for the job. Then comes the assessment phase. Here, the psychopathic employee identifies the potential support network of Patrons (those who will protect and defend the psychopath), Pawns (those who can be unwittingly manipulated into using their power in service of the psychopath’s aims), and Organisational Police (staff in such control such functions as audit, security, human resources who might get in the way). Stage three is manipulation: the psychopath works the patrons and pawns, building the influence network through close and intense one-on-one relationships and, at the same time, moving up the organisation. The next stage is confrontation. Individuals no longer deemed useful discover they’ve been wiped, relegated from close friend to Patsy. Two factions start forming: influential supporters (Pawns and Patrons); and powerless detractors (Patsies and Police). Finally, there’s ascension. That’s when all that planning and manipulation pays offthe Patrons are betrayed, the boss is shoved aside, and the psychopath moves in.

But how?

Jay is smart, energetic, ambitious and switched-on. How could he have been so vulnerable? The sad truth is that we all are. Organisational psychopaths are very good at what they do.

What we know about neuroscience explains quite a bit about what happens when a psychopath enters our midst. For example, at the first meeting, Jay had a “gut feeling” that something was “off” about Bob.  This response is commonly reported when people initially encounter a psychopath. In all likelihood, Jay’s limbic system was engaged and his intuition was on high alert.

Bob fared better during the second interview. He had had an opportunity to use his own intuition to size up the company and Jay in order to make a better impression. As a psychopath, Bob has an intuitive understanding about how to find common ground with Jay.

Since our brains are programmed to view new people and situations as a threat, Jay was on guard during the first interview.  When Bob returned, he quickly established rapport. Using charm, flattery, and verbal fluency, Bob stroked the egos of the selection committee. This time around, Jay felt they had goals and styles in common and responded to Bob more positively. With this new commonality established, ocytocin began to flow, the bond between the two men grew and a feeling of trust emerged. As long as Bob tended this trust, Jay was unlikely to alter his opinion of Bob and his capabilities.

snake copyAs the working relationship developed, this positive impression further solidified. It served as the screen behind which Bob manipulated others in the organization. He played on Jay’s biases, insecurities, fears, and ambitions the more he learned about them. Those Bob viewed as rivals, he worked to do away with or neutralise. Those who could serve his rise, he flattered and charmed.

Honesty is one of the most important traits in any organisation. Unfortunately, pathological lying is a hallmark of psychopaths. Studies have shown that the brains of psychopaths are strikingly different to those of the rest of us. On fMRIs of psychopaths, the same part of the brain light up for emotional words like “hate” and neutral words like “table”. Scans of normal brains show different parts of the brain lighting up. Researchers also attribute this capacity for lying to the lack of guilt psychopaths feel when they lie. And why they do it so well.

Is collaboration possible?

Because the human brain is a social organ, we seek connection, something that facilitates collaboration and teamwork. Problems arise, however, when a psychopath joins a team. Since psychopaths are highly egocentric, believing the world revolves around them, they are not team players. The big danger is that because they tend to be excessively charming and agreeable, they appear to be cooperative. In truth, however, they will say and do anything to get their way, feel no guilt about their actions, take excessive risks, blame others when things go wrong, and deny there are any problems. And of course, they stab anyone they believe is in their way or deemed unnecessary.

According to Australian psychotherapist Dr John Clarke, the workplace psychopath can isolate and mentally destroy the staff around them. “The workplace psychopath is somebody who psychologically destroys the people they work with to feed their need for a sense of power and control and domination over other human beings. They don’t suffer any guilt or remorse for their behaviour, in fact they enjoy the suffering of other people,” Dr Clarke told ABC radio.

Dr Andrea Quinn, at the University of Southern Queensland’s Centre for Organisational Psychology, says the presence of organisational psychopaths in the workplace is a worrying issue.”Managers need to see past the charm and focus on objective indicators. For example, a team or section led by an organisational psychopath is likely to have low morale, high absenteeism, and higher than average resignations.” She also warns to look out for an observable change in behaviour of the team members when the organisational psychopath is absent–such as more joking and improved mood.

What can be done?

stackPapersSmlQuinn’s advice: “If you want to get the best out of your senior staff, consider what you do want in a leader of people, such as empathy and authentic communication. Build it into your strategy as a condition of career advancement, and ensure the processes are objective and defensible. Remember, an organisational psychopath may also be a masterful sycophant!”

Consider the advice and guidance of an organisational psychologist to complement your HR practices. The only way to manage an organisational psychopath is to use solid evidence. If a manager suspects the presence of such a person, they need to “triangulate the data”, according to Quinn. This means gathering evidence from a range of sources: quality performance appraisal processes against well-formulated KPIs; using HR information to identify areas with high staff turnover; and 360-degree feedback so that good people management is seen to matter.

Quinn adds, “An organisational psychopath often ‘kisses up and kicks down’ so information needs to be gathered about the way in which the manager treats their staff and colleagues.”

Perhaps most important, however, is to build empathy into all aspects of your organisational processes. And don’t forget to trust your instincts. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Gardiner Morse notes that organisational psychopaths are surprisingly difficult to spot. Your instincts, however, will tell you straight away that you are in danger. That uneasy feeling you have when the person is around is your body’s way of telling you to beware.


Adair Jones is a writer and editor with a fascination for the human brain in all its manifold aspects.

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The Neuroscience of Effective Collaboration: What the Best Leaders Know about Team Building

Posted on November 26, 2012. Filed under: Our Leaders Say | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Joining a new team can be daunting. Cindy Thomas draws on her studies in neuroscience to explore brain friendly ways to make the transition, build relationships, and foster effective collaboration.


Recently, I accepted a challenging new position, something that created as much apprehension as it did excitement.  I had the luxury of having a couple of weeks leave prior to starting, which allowed me to take my time and plan my strategy using what I’ve learned in my studies for the Diploma in the Neuroscience of Leadership.  Understanding that our brains are geared towards a threat or reward response provided me with an excellent place to begin. In order to build a healthy group dynamic, I knew I needed to start off on the right foot. Therefore, I took time to research aspects of team building and collaboration.

Know your team members

If possible, it’s helpful to have an informal introduction to the team prior to starting. I was fortunate to have a few open conversations with the previous manager on the performance, strengths, and areas for development for each team member. I then made it a priority to chat informally with each member as a way of breaking the ice in a non-threatening way.  My goal was to look for common ground and to get a sense of the various personality styles at play.  I wanted to know who was introverted and who was extroverted, what values we might share as a team, how I might create a sense of relatedness between and among us. From the outset, I hoped to encourage a willingness to accept differences.

Managers often mistakenly believe that it’s good to mix it up, that new members bring energy and fresh ideas to a team and that, without them, members risk becoming complacent, inattentive to changes in the environment, and too forgiving of fellow members’ misbehavior.

Actually, according to J. Richard Hackman, the Edgar Pierce Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University and a leading expert on teams, the longer members stay together as an intact group, the better they do. As counter-intuitive as this may seem, the research evidence is unambiguous. Whether it’s a basketball team or a string quartet, teams that stay together longer play together better.

The mere presence of others can make us perform better. Social psychology pioneer Norman Triplett noticed that racing cyclists with a pacemaker covered each mile about five seconds quicker than those without. Later research found this wasn’t all about the effects of competition. The presence of other people seems to facilitate our own performance, but more so when the task is relatively separate to others and can be judged on its own merits.

In other circumstances, though, people in groups demonstrate a tremendous capacity for inefficiency. Another social psychology pioneer, Max Ringelmann, found that participants in a tug ‘o war only put in half as much effort when they were in a team of eight than when they were on their own. People can be tempted to slack off when they are able to hide in a group–when tasks are additive, for example, and each person’s contribution is difficult to judge.

Gaining trust: ‘First conform, then lead’

In many contexts, leaders are appointed or imposed from the outside, as in my case; in other situations, leaders emerge slowly and subtly from the ranks.  A study from 60 years ago has a lot to say about joining a team. In 1949, Ference Merei observed children at a Hungarian nursery school. He noticed that successful leaders were those who initially fitted in with the group then slowly began to suggest new activities adapted from the old. Children didn’t follow potential leaders who jumped straight in with new ideas. Leaders first conform, then only later, when trust has been gained, can they be confident that others will follow. This has been confirmed in later studies with adults and, not surprisingly, applies as much today as when the original research was undertaken.

Since I was an ‘appointed’ leader, I knew I needed to move slowly if I wanted to be successful. I made a plan to start off as a listener, letting the team members speak first. I encouraged them to offer their opinions, ideas and perspectives, while I remained quiet. All too often, new leaders enter a team full of energy without understanding the subtleties of the group’s dynamics, hoping to make a big splash and impress others with critical perspectives and new ideas. While this isn’t always a bad thing, group members may initially feel threatened or alienated, so it’s worth taking time to (at least) appear to be a team member first before assuming the role of team leader.

A recent study by Matthew Hornsey of the University of Queensland supports this. He found that groups are hostile to criticism from newcomers and are likely to resist, dismiss or ignore it—unless the new leader has proven loyalty first. Consequently, newcomers to a group who want to gain influence and promote change should tread very carefully until they are well-established. Also, it’s critical to remember that adapting new processes from old familiar processes will often be more successful and less threatening than throwing out what everyone’s been used to and replacing it with the new.

This is because we are neurologically designed to respond to new people and new situations as potentially threatening. There is a hormone—oxytocin—that readily occurs in breastfeeding women helping them to bond with their infants. This hormone is also present in couples and other well-bonded groups, including work groups. It is only after recurring positive experiences that oxytocin begins to flow and trust is gained. Leaders joining a new team do well to enter quietly and remain patient. Also, once trust has been gained, it should be considered to be more valuable than gold and protected at all costs.

Collaboration fundamentals

In research since 1993, Katzenbach and Smith have identified six fundamentals of collaboration that are necessary for high performing groups.

Many managers assume bigger is better, thinking larger groups have more resources to apply to the work. They also tend to think that including representatives of all relevant constituencies increases the chances that whatever is produced will be accepted and used. In reality, excessive size is one of the most common—and also one of the worst—impediments to effective collaboration. The larger the group, the higher the likelihood of social loafing and the more effort it takes to keep members’ activities coordinated. Small teams are more efficient—and far less frustrating.

While powerful electronic technologies do make remote communication easier, face-to-face interaction is still essential. In fact, teams working remotely are at a considerable disadvantage. A number of organizations that rely heavily on distributed teams have found that it is well worth the time and expense to get members together when the team is launched, again around the midpoint of the team’s work, and yet again when the work has been completed.

According to Hackman, the most powerful thing a leader can do to foster effective collaboration is to create conditions that help members competently manage themselves. The second most powerful thing is to launch the team well. And third is the hands-on teaching and coaching that leaders do after the work is underway. Each of these is something new research in neuroscience supports.

New leaders often mistakenly believe that teamwork is magical. They think that to harvest its many benefits, all one has to do is gather up some really talented people and tell them in general terms what’s needed—the team will then work out the details. Actually, it takes careful thought and enormous preparation to stack the deck for success. The best leaders provide a clear statement of just what the team is to accomplish, and then make sure that the team has all the resources and supports it will need to succeed.

Finally, don’t be afraid of conflict. Hackman’s research confirms that when conflict is well managed and focused on a team’s objectives, it can generate more creative solutions than those in conflict-free groups. In fact, disagreements can be good for a team as long as it’s about the work itself. Hackman found in earlier research on symphony orchestras that slightly grumpy orchestras played a little better as ensembles than those whose members worked together especially harmoniously.

Armed with this information, I felt better prepared and more confident in joining my new team. So far, we’ve developed a sense of relatedness and are on the road to building trust—the first and most important steps in collaborating effectively. Based on that, I have great hopes for what’s to come.

See our tip sheet of Muneera Spence’s rules for successful collaboration.


.Cindy Thomas has spent the past six years in site-based Community Stakeholder roles helping construction teams create positive delivery environments for complex and challenging transport infrastructure projects. Through her strategic leadership, Cindy is also able to effectively manage and direct the activities of a large community and stakeholder team while co-ordinating multiple tasks within a constantly changing environment. She has also been inspired to continue her studies in the area of neuroscience and behavioural change.

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Business Leaders Agree: Empathy is the Single-Most Important Skill in Business Today

Posted on October 17, 2012. Filed under: Our Leaders Say | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

In a recent workshop on The Neuroscience of Collaboration, undertaken as part of the Diploma of Neuroscience of Leadership, Adair Jones was inspired by the significant role empathy plays in human relations and how it can be effectively utilised in the business realm.


.John Marshall Roberts is a bestselling author, a social scientist, and the CEO of Worldview Learning. He has crafted his career around converting corporations and communicating with cynics. In his opinion, empathy is the single-most important skill in business today.  Through strategic communications and values-based messaging, Roberts has made it his mission to help leaders develop the empathy skills required to inspire common vision.  For the last several years, he has used his knowledge of systems theory and developmental psychology to enable socially conscious marketers, business leaders, and activists to win over objectors and inspire radical collaboration.  More and more, savvy business leaders are following his example.

In simple terms, empathy is the ability to recognise and understand the situation, feelings, and motives of another.  Conveying empathic emotion is defined as the ability to understand what others are feeling, the ability to actively share emotions with others, and passively experiencing the feelings of others in order to be effective.


Empathy creates brain-friendly workplaces

Empathy is the oil that keeps relationships running smoothly.

We need to think of it as valued currency. Empathy allows us to create bonds of trust. It gives us insights into what others may be feeling or thinking. It helps us understand how and why others are reacting to situations. It sharpens our “people acumen”.  And it informs our decisions.  All of this is too important to ignore.

The increasing use of teams—”cauldrons of bubbling emotions”, according to the psychologist Daniel Goleman—means that empathy in the workplace is increasingly important.  It means that you’re more aware of the feelings of others and how these feelings impact their perception. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with how they see things; rather, being empathetic means that you’re willing and able to appreciate what the other person is going through.

When teams are motivated by reward rather than threat, they share more, feel more engaged, think and perform better.

Empathy makes better leaders

According to the Center for Creative Leadership, the nature of leadership is shifting, placing a greater emphasis on building and maintaining relationships.  They claim that “leaders today need to be more person-focused and be able to work with those not just in the next cubicle, but those in other buildings and other countries.”

A leader who develops empathy has several advantages:


In a Harvard Business Review article entitled “What Makes a Leader?“,  Goleman states:

Leaders with empathy do more than sympathize with people around them: they use their knowledge to improve their companies in subtle, but important ways, by thoughtfully considering employees’ feelings – along with other factors – in the process of making intelligent decisions.


Empathy drives strategy

Goleman also identifies the rapid pace of globalization as an important reason for building empathy into business. Cross-cultural communication easily leads to misunderstandings.  Mistaking priorities, being unaware of cultural, group, and personal biases can hamper success.  The capacity to identify what is important to colleagues, clients, and customers is informed by the capacity for empathy.

This means developing the skill of perspective-taking.  Anecdotes abound about how Steve Jobs of Apple and Akio Moita of Sony eschewed market research. Instead, they traveled around the world in order to watch what people were doing. They put themselves in the shoes of their customers. This ability led to the innovations that brought both men and their organisations success.

Without a capacity for perspective-taking, not only is an organisation less able to innovate, but it  risks ‘disruption’. James Allworth of the Harvard Business Review Blog Network offers the case of Blockbuster v Netflix as a prime example:

Blockbuster saw the rise of Netflix in the very early 2000s, and chose not to do anything about it. Why? Well, its management couldn’t see the world from any perspective other than from the vantage point from which they sat: atop a $6 billion business with 60% margins, tens of thousands of employees and stores all across the country. Blockbuster’s management couldn’t bring itself to see Netflix’s perspective: that while Netflix was only achieving 30% margins, Netflix wasn’t comparing its 30% to Blockbuster’s 60%. Netflix was comparing it to no profit at all. And Blockbuster’s management certainly couldn’t see the world from their customers’ perspective: that late fees were driving folks up the wall, and that their range of movies eschewed anything that wasn’t a new release. While Blockbuster knew it could invest to create a Netflix competitor, that would be an expensive proposition, it might not work, and even if it did, it would probably cannibalize its existing business. With that being their perspective, they saw two choices: creating a disruptive entrant with all the pitfalls of cost and risk or just continuing with the existing business. Thinking those were their options, continuing with the existing business looked like a pretty obvious choice. The mildest application of a different perspective — stopping and considering what the world looked like to Netflix, or even what the world looked like to Blockbuster’s customers — would have revealed that this was not the choice they faced at all. Their options, in reality, were to start the disruptive competitor — or go bankrupt.

This case illustrates just how important perspective-taking can be in business.  The best way for a leader to develop an ability to view a situation from competing perspectives is to build empathy into practices and processes, which in turn fosters the skill of perspective-taking.


Empathy can be learned

Fortunately, empathy is not a fixed trait—it can be learned.  Recent research into mirror neurons has proven that we’re wired for sociability and attachment to others; in other words, we’re driven to connect and highly motivated to understand those we interact with.

Since this is  hardwired, the brain is organised to pay attention not only to what is being said but also to the universe of information that is conveyed non-verbally.  Only a few leaders understand just how valuable this is. It’s a resource free for the taking, a seam of gold waiting to be mined.

Given time and the right support, leaders can develop and enhance their empathy skills through coaching, training, and other developmental opportunities, thereby enhancing productivity and helping true innovation to flourish in their businesses.




Adair Jones is a writer and editor with a fascination for the human brain in all its manifold aspects.

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