Every year in our office, we ban a word. In previous years, we’ve banned words such as ‘millennial’. The M-word had been used to personify an entire generation and falsely characterise them as homogenous.

Basil Demeroutis

Basil Demeroutis

A set of values has been presented as if they were uniquely about them, when they are in fact common to everyone: a longing for meaning in work, a loyalty to purpose rather than productivity and a desire to have balance and harmony in life.

I think if you quizzed people aged 25 to 85, they would all want these same things. In fact, in 2018, Gallup did just that and asked baby boomers, Gen Z, Gen X and millennials what they looked for most in an employer – and their answers were surprisingly similar. These are universal human conditions. So the word ‘millennial’ got banned in our office.

This year, we have trained our sights on ‘collaboration’. Collaboration is thought of as the activity when a diverse team come together with a shared understanding of goals, collectively generating solutions, the result being greater than any one individual could achieve on their own – a kind of ‘kumbaya’ of corporate culture.

Post-pandemic, we have come to think of collaboration as the magic ‘why’ that we have been seeking to drive the need to

visit the office, the holy grail to bring people back to work. It is seen as a necessary and sufficient condition to corporate and personal success, or the unifying theory of the cosmos – as though collaboration is the solution for the crisis of connection and loneliness we are all feeling. Come to the office, collaboration will happen, and all will be good again.

To me, that just feels like lazy shorthand. We use the term without really understanding what it means, what underpins it, jumping to the conclusion without first having thought through why collaboration matters – and if we even need it at all.

Research shows that most people would actually rather work alone, despite the fact that for almost every company, projects require teamwork, and sharing experiences helps individuals innovate and grow. A recent University of Phoenix study found that 75% of people would rather not work in teams, and more than 70% have worked within teams that they described as dysfunctional.

Collaboration is hard. Why is something as basic as working together so difficult? Often there is a lack of clarity about goals, and a conflict between an individual’s goals and those of the team. Group work requires good leadership and, especially when collaborating across departments or between firms, there may be too many leaders, with the loudest voice in the room filling the role even if he or she is not equipped to lead.

Bring out the bias

Collaborative sessions can bring out the worst in terms of cognitive biases and systematic patterns of irrational judgement, as individuals create and reinforce their own subjective reality, derived from personal perceptions that have become deeply ingrained over the years.

Collaboration is a sophisticated skill. It does not spring up on its own. It requires individual confidence. And for this, we need to focus on psychological safety; on empathy, emotional intelligence, curiosity, calmness, safety and equanimity.

We need sensitive engagement and mutual respect. We need to reward co-operation over competition, and to reduce ego friction by making sure everyone involved equally shares in the value of the end goal and is willing to compromise their ego to get there.

Collaboration is not about consensus; it is more about diverging perspectives. It is how we bring start-up thinking to established organisations. And it can be the catalyst for significant personal and corporate growth.

The office – the stage on which this drama plays out – has a huge role to play in creating this kind of environment, as a space that fosters these values. Whether in person or online, synchronous or asynchronous, where we interact has a tremendous influence on how we interact. We need to create a physical environment that cultivates the psychological outcomes we are after.

Great work – and great workspaces – are not at all about collaboration. They are about all that other stuff that makes an organisation thrive, collaboration or not.

Basil Demeroutis is managing partner of FORE Partnership