3 fears holding your team back from collaboration

We would all love to manage teams that come together effortlessly, require low maintenance and exceed expectations. However, the reality is that working collaboratively is difficult, most people have never had any formal training in this area. You may have occasional breakthroughs, only to be frustrated when you find people drifting back to their old habits. Analysing the common challenges that arise provides insight into building cohesive teams and how to avoid dysfunction.

Why is collaboration important?

Collaboration is people coming together to address a common goal, whether they’re required to work with team members or external stakeholders. We often overlook the fact that each person has their own individual KPIs, in addition to the common goal. Getting the balance right between these competing interests can be difficult.

A survey of 2,000 employers found that collaboration is one of the top four skills companies are seeking when hiring graduates. Collaboration is becoming more important to modern workforce needs (survey conducted by Manpower).

During my career, I have worked for companies with contrasting cultures. One had hidden agendas, powerful cliques and backstabbing was commonplace. Another was uplifting, with everyone was pulling together, collaboration in this workplace was easy, while it was non-existent in the former. Drawing on Patrick Lencioni’s work on team dysfunction and my own experience, there are three identified types of ‘fears’ holding people back.

  1. Self-leadership - Do I have the right stuff?

Individuals in your team may be asking themselves, “how do I prioritise my contributions? Do I function well in a team situation or one where I am in control? Am I comfortable working in new ways with different people and trying new things?” 
If your people can’t answer these questions in a positive way, they will struggle to fit in and could destroy group dynamics.

Self-leadership is how we influence ourselves to achieve our objectives, factors include self-awareness of our own traits, leveraging our strengths and possessing resilience. A good exercise you can implement today is gathering your team and defining what self-leadership looks like in day-to-day behaviours and actions, your team will understand what is desired from them.

Your people need to bring the right attitude, mindset and emotional intelligence to understand where they fit and how they can work in with others in the team.


  1. Safety - Is this a positive and safe working environment?

People contribute more to group work when they feel safe in doing so. Dr Jeff Polzer examined the impact of social interactions on group dynamics and found that vulnerability builds trust.

Working relationships suffer when people fear their ideas may be ridiculed, their input is not valued and they fear being taken advantage of with hidden motives and agendas. Language is a key indicator of safe environments, where people make the shift from ‘me’ to ‘we’ when talking about their work.
Your people will bring their best, put in effort and unleash their potential in safe environments.


  1. Connection to purpose - Is the purpose clear and relevant?

Does your team know why they are collaborating? Do they feel motivated and engaged? If the purpose is unclear, perceived as irrelevant or individuals don’t align it with their own goals, your projects will perform below their potential.

Most organisations have a stated mission or purpose but seldom operationalise it. You must connect the purpose to individual’s projects and KPIs, you may need to explain connections with the task and end goal to help individuals make progress. This will help you create an aligned, productive and high-performing team.

Addressing the three fears will enable collaboration and allow your team to do what they do best. You can improve performance through greater productivity and unleash their full potential.

Phil Preston is presenting at Governance Institute of Australia’s Leaders in Governance seminar on 22 October.

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