Organizations have employees complete Employee Engagement Surveys to determine to what extent employees feel valued and involved in their everyday work. Management wants to know if their employees feel invested in their company’s mission and its success.

Workplace collaboration is one of the items that rank high in these surveys as something that needs improvement. Why?

When employees experience problems with how work flows across the organization, it is often labeled as “poor collaboration.” Work is often stalled or even halted when it relies on input from someone else. When someone in another department misses a deadline, the employee can’t do his or her work. And when there is a breakdown in communication, and no one seems to be accountable to keep everyone on track, hand-offs will be missed, and work will be duplicated.

How does this sound in the workplace? One often hears comments like these:

“My marketing proposal is already two weeks late. I can’t finish my work until the sales department gives me their report.”

“I worked on a project for two weeks before I found out it was also assigned to someone in another department.”

While in these cases it sounds like poor collaboration is the problem, it is not the root cause.

Employees don’t have an innate desire to sabotage their co-workers, particularly when they know that their collective efforts define the success of a project. The willingness to support each other is absolutely present. But why, in spite of good will, does collaboration break down?

The starting point is that each employee from each department in the entire organization receives direction from her or his boss. It is their managers that tell them what is important, and as a result what must be prioritized. Each employee therefore rightfully focuses on their high priority work. The work they would need to do to support someone in another department seldom makes the list of must-do’s, because the manager has not asked for it to be a priority.

Why Collaboration Fails
Think about this for a second. If finance is working on a new reporting system for the executive team, when does the person is Operations, who needs to provide the data, find out about this new system? In my experience, they find out about it when a colleague from Finance sends them an email and asks that a new form be completed. 

As a result, the person in Operations sees this as “Finance work”, and the completion of the form not as real work, but as a “favour” for Finance. For successful collaboration, the delegation in Operations needs to be as clear as the delegation in Finance. Only in this way will the person in Operations who needs to complete the form see this as real work in the same way as the person in Finance who is accountable for generating the report.

When the executive team sees the words “poor collaboration” appearing on employee engagement surveys, they don’t think “poor delegation”. The intuitive reaction to these findings is to create team-building exercises for management. But this isn’t about team building across functions… it is about the absence of an accountability and authority framework for delegating the flow of work across the organization.

An effective manager supports others in the organization, monitors workflow, and ensures that the day-to-day work of his or her staff is improved by working together, rather than by working in silos. This can only happen within a framework that is set by the CEO and within common context throughout the organization.

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