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Collaboration: More than the Sum of its Parts

A pair of articles examines this critical building block of engagement from two different perspectives

Internal Collaboration: Why Partnering Works

By Rodd Wagner and Gale Muller, Ph.D.

Humans are made for collaborating. Our blood pressure rises and falls depending on who is nearby. The amount we eat depends a lot on the amount eaten by those with whom we dine. We laugh, not so much because something is funny, but because laughter is a kind of social glue, making a person 30 times more likely to laugh when he’s with someone else than when he’s alone. Isolation can be as bad for a person’s health as smoking.

In a world that emphasizes individual achievement – the successful CEO, the MVP, the star – we often forget that everyone is descended from millions of people who survived because they didn’t go it alone. In the thousands of years that molded human nature, our ancestors required not only individual wits and strength, but also the ability to collaborate – to discern, trust, sacrifice, empathize and intelligently combine their efforts with someone else. Hunters who worked together were more likely to return with a kill. Two men who agreed to help each other improved their odds of fending off mutual enemies.

Yet over time, humans created so many conveniences that we now can survive without each other. We live indoors rather than in the elements. We can eat microwavable dinners rather than hauling in a fish net with someone else. We no longer tell real stories around the fire; we turn on the TV and watch familiar strangers pretend. Cubicles and private offices were bad enough; at least we would pass each other in the hall or gather for lunch. Now we can “telecommute,” staying in our home offices and e-mailing the work we did by ourselves. Hiring managers are starting to report that the next generation “is so used to texting they don’t even know how to carry on a basic conversation with other people.”

A Lonely Pursuit

Somewhere along the line we got off track. Our televisions, e-mail, headphones, texting, car radios and personal computers have tricked our brains into thinking we’re with other people, interacting, when we’re actually working in isolation. We’re crowded in offices, airports, subways, frequently within arm’s reach of dozens of people, but frequently on a very lonely pursuit. Wired? Yes. Networked? Yes. Collaborating? Not much.

In the workplace, those with just one collaborative relationship are 29% more likely to say they’ll stay with their company for the next year and 42% more likely to say they’ll remain with their current employer for their entire career than those with no partnerships. Those who feel well teamed with one or more colleagues are substantially more engaged at work; they generate higher customer scores, safety, retention, creativity, productivity and profitability for the business, as well as a greater level of happiness for themselves.

Yet, for all of our collaborative instincts, most of us today form far fewer strong partnerships than we could or should. Gallup’s research reveals that the median number of work partnerships for an American employee is just four, but even that low number hides a sadder truth. The small proportion of people who have dozens of close teammates inflate this statistic. Asked how many strong alliances they have, most people say they have just a few, even though the highest levels of happiness and employee engagement kick in when a person has five to 10 good alliances.

Perhaps the saddest statistic of all is that the most common number of work partnerships – the answer given by 16% of the population – is zero. Asked if they have ever had a great partnership at work, one-quarter of employees say no.

Eight Elements

Throughout your life, you have opportunities to build hundreds of partnerships. Some are brief relationships to accomplish a modest goal. Others last years, even decades. These opportunities and relationships are usually poorly understood and frequently mismanaged.

Why do some people click and others clash? Why do some people have dozens of great partnerships while others have none? Great partnerships don’t just happen. Whether your joint mission is to build a great company, coach a team, improve the government, do something spectacular for a charity, or any other worthy goal, all successful partnerships share the same crucial ingredients.

Through numerous waves of research, we analyzed the responses of thousands of people in search of the variables that differentiate between a great partnership and a poor one. Those from all walks of life scored their working relationships with their coworkers, their fellow volunteers, the other students with whom they study, their managers and hundreds of others with whom they regularly interact. Our research revealed eight elements of a powerful partnership:

1. Complementary Strengths. Everyone has weaknesses and blind spots that create obstacles to reaching a goal. One of the most powerful reasons for teaming up is working with someone who is strong where you are weak and vice versa. Specialization allows both people to spend more time doing what each does best and allows the two together to tackle challenges neither could alone. Individuals are not well-rounded, but pairs can be.

2. A Common Mission. It may seem as if the pursuit of a shared goal is so basic to successful collaboration that it goes without saying. Yet when two people fail, the root cause is often that they were pursuing separate agendas. Conversely, when partners want the same thing badly enough, they will make the personal sacrifices necessary to see it through.

3. Fairness. A need for fairness is instinctive in humans. It appears very early in childhood, without any training. No one likes to be taken advantage of, to get the short end of the deal. Because the need for fairness runs deep, it’s an essential quality of a strong partnership.

4. Trust. Working with someone means taking risks. You’re not likely to contribute your best work unless you trust your partner will do his or her best. You need to rely on your counterpart to look out for your interests. And that person requires the same from you. Without trust, it’s easier to work alone.

5. Acceptance. We see the world through our own set of lenses. What’s normal for one person is a serious flaw for another. Whenever two disparate personalities come together, there is bound to be a certain friction from their differences, a recipe for conflict unless both learn to accept the idiosyncrasies of the other.

6. Forgiveness. People are imperfect. They make mistakes. They sometimes do the wrong thing. Without forgiveness, the natural revenge motives that stem from human friend-or-foe instincts will overpower all the reasons to continue the partnership, and it will dissolve.

7. Communication. The only way two minds can be united in one mission is if the pair communicates well. Without coordinating their moves, collaborators risk knocking heads or making deal-wrecking assumptions about the other’s intentions. In the early stages, communicating helps to avoid misunderstandings and assure each person of the other’s trustworthiness. Later, a continuous flow of information makes the work more efficient by keeping the two synchronized.

8. Unselfishness. Most people enter partnerships for selfish reasons; they can personally accomplish more collaborating than they can working solo. However, in the best working relationships something happens along the way. Researchers call it “mutuality” when the natural concern for your own welfare transforms into gratification in seeing your comrade succeed. Those who have reached this level say such collaborations become among the most fulfilling aspects of their lives. It is one thing to have accomplished a great goal by oneself, they say, but such individual achievements cannot compare to doing a great thing together.

Partner Up!

When all these elements combine, partnerships become not just effective in accomplishing the mission, but also personally rewarding – sometimes intensely so. “If I were teaching students about entrepreneurship, I’d point out that many of the great startups of the last 30 years began as teams of two,” noted Forbes Publisher Rich Karlgaard. “Behind this phenomenon is a principle: Build on your strengths. To mitigate your weaknesses – and we all have them – partner up! Find your complement.”

Ultimately, if you can harness the same cooperative instincts that allowed your distant ancestors to survive, you will enjoy greater happiness. You can lighten your load, take advantage of your strengths and achieve unprecedented success being one of two people pursuing a shared mission. Take off the headphones. Break away from the screen. Get out of your office. And unleash the Power of 2.

Excerpted from Power of 2: How to Make the Most of Your Partnerships at Work and in Life. © Copyright 2009, Gallup, Inc.

External Collaboration: When You Can’t Do It All

By William Keenan Jr.

No one company can do everything for a client. Sure, you can provide an engaging reward program – but can you provide the tools and training a company’s employees might need to achieve the workplace safety levels that management wants to reward? Maybe you can provide high-end awards for employees who demonstrate a high level of engagement – but can you help your client determine its baseline employee engagement levels in the first place? And with companies in general looking for ways to build engagement with their employees, channel partners and customers, how do you make sure your firm is invited to be part of that conversation?

While it’s true that no company can do everything for a client, one way to increase your capabilities – whatever the motivational or behavioral goals of the end-user – is to expand your reach by making your own offerings more useful and valuable and increasing your credibility in these discussions through alliances, collaborations and partnerships.

Here’s a look at some of the companies in the engagement marketplace that have made use of such collaborations successfully.

Social Lubricant

Rideau Recognition Solutions, with corporate offices in Montreal and New York, recently announced a partnership with PollStream, a Toronto-based provider of interactive engagement and community building solutions, in order to “enhance its online recognition portal offering.”

According to Lonn Shulkin, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Rideau, “The alliance will allow us to leverage our online recognition platform with PollStream’s social networking tools to further facilitate employee relationships and increase employee engagement, retention, and productivity.”

Shulkin adds that Rideau’s mission is to get employees engaged and motivated through strengthening relationships, noting that “PollStream’s networking systems let us use a proven successful social phenomenon to keep the channel of communication between employees open and active.”

PollStream’s tools, says Shulkin, act as the social lubricant needed to increase the incidences of peer-to-peer and employee-to-manager recognition. “Social networking encourages the creation of new links between staff through a live interactive platform producing a true sense of community for all employees,” he explains. “And an increase in the sense of community translates to an increase in employee engagement and productivity.”


Other companies make use of collaborations and partnerships to expand their reach. “Sometimes you want your partnerships to run contrary – or on the periphery – to what your business model is, because what you do then is cross-pollinate ideas and opportunities,” says Bill Termini, Vice President of Domestic and Global Sales for Hinda Incentives in Chicago, adding “You find things that you might normally not have.”

Termini notes that Hinda has worked with high-end technology companies, HR firms, workplace safety providers and employee health and wellness companies, among others. “We just try to find people that we can interest in our business model and we can understand their business model,” he says. “Then, when we run into opportunities, as we understand their model, we can send them their way – and as they find opportunities, they send them our way. It’s a partnership to build and sponsor each other’s business. That’s what it’s all about.”

Besides the expanded reach, some partnerships can help companies get to a higher level within companies they’re already calling on. For instance, Termini notes that HR companies are calling on the same people Hinda likes to call on at many organizations – the VP of Human Resources. “But sometimes they’ll have a higher-level relationship with those people. So they add a certain credibility to our efforts there that we normally might not have.”

For the most part, Hinda keeps such alliances informal, sometimes working in “stealth mode” as a silent partner, and other times coming in as a joint partner making joint calls on potential customers and sharing in the revenue. But Termini says they’re also careful to stick to their strengths and let partners stick to theirs. “It’s really bad for organizations to try to be what they are not,” he cautions.

The best advice Termini says he could offer companies who might be interested in taking on this kind of collaboration would be this: “Don’t make it too complicated. Figure out the relationship and then keep that relationship simple. If all of a sudden you have to have two or three meetings to figure out the relationship, then it probably isn’t going to work.”

Cultural Impact

Another reason to find a partner or collaborator is to be able to offer your customers a necessary type of expertise that just doesn’t fall within your company’s core competency. Michael A. Fina, Executive VP of Technology for reward and recognition company Michael C. Fina, says his firm realized that customers wanted to take a closer look at measuring the success of using rewards and recognition to engage their workforce – “They wanted to look at it more scientifically, to really understand the return on investment.”

And even though Michael C. Fina had the capability to provide customers with a lot of quantitative metrics – including program activity, usage, non-usage, the types of behaviors being rewarded, the timing between recognition events and others – “What we can’t measure,” Fina explains, “is things like cultural impact and the effect on engagement; the more subjective and the more qualitative parts of the benefits and the effects of recognition.” Consequently, he says, “We thought the right approach was to work with a company that specializes in just that – in measuring engagement and the effects of the initiatives that you put in place in an organization to try to change engagement and change behavior.”

The company it found to partner with was HR Solutions Inc., a Chicago-based consulting firm specializing in employee engagement. “I don’t know who came to whom first,” Fina says, “but we had some customers in common, and we had customers telling us, ‘Hey, HR Solutions is doing a really good job for us,’ and they had customers saying, ‘Michael C. Fina is doing a great job for us,’ so it was somewhat natural for us to sit down and talk.”

What they came up with was a formal agreement carving out an alliance aimed at bringing a greater array of tools services to clients looking to improve employee engagement, recognition, and loyalty. Specifically, HR Solutions had developed a sophisticated survey tool that could be used to identify baseline employee engagement levels for client companies.

Says Fina: “I guess the ideal situation for us to work together is where HR Solutions is basically able to take the engagement survey data and say, ‘OK guys, here’s what the survey data are showing us, and let’s all put our heads together on what to do with it.’ Because while we’re the experts in recognition, they’re the experts, not only in measuring and interpreting the engagement survey data, but also in suggesting the actions that are going to have the greatest impact. And together we determine how to use recognition to try to change some behaviors to improve engagement scores going forward.”

It Has to Fit

Before entering into their formal agreement, both HR Solutions and Michael C. Fina engaged in a round of fact-finding and due diligence. “But once you get past the capability – the technical capabilities, the experience and all of the business review stuff,” says Fina, “it’s important to also have a personality fit, a cultural fit and a similar attitude and approach to customers.”

You want to be sure of that fit, Fina says, because the biggest leap of faith and confidence you can make as a company is to say to a customer, “We can’t do that, but let me bring in another company that can.”

The abovementioned companies work hard to ensure that fit, and to maintain a mutually beneficial relationship by meeting regularly and by appointing a “Relationship Manager” at each firm. “The relationship has to create something that’s unique and different, something that’s going to be a differentiator for both companies,” Fina explains. “And it’s an evolving process – our ongoing discussions, I would say, are about how to make what we do together better, and how to make it more effective.”

The relationship managers on each side of the alliance, he adds, are working together and consistently discussing the opportunities. “They nurture the relationship. They raise their hands when there are things that need to be addressed. And they chart the course on a day-to-day basis.”

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