7 Strategies for Creating a Culture of Collaboration

“That’s not in my job description!” Ever hear that around your office? I can’t even count how many times I have.

To some degree, and in certain contexts, that statement is legit! In an age where technology has exponentially increased staff accessibility (thus making us extremely busy), it is necessary to place healthy boundaries around the priorities that are in our job descriptions.  Combine that with ever-shrinking budgets, and focusing on our job descriptions alone can often feel like we’re asked to do much with very little resources.

But what about inter-departmental collaboration? Many times being overly protective of one’s boundaries can also create the departmental silo effect, where each department is not willing to collaborate because of a fear of being asked to do too much.  And if any department feels the pain of an existing silo condition, it’s the financial aid office! When admissions, the bursar, the registrar and student life offices aren’t willingly collaborating with other departments, perhaps no other department suffers as much as the financial aid office.

Or what about just inter-office collaboration? The same concepts can be applied to just the financial aid staff within larger offices, where certain teams or team-members within the office just don’t make many efforts to be team players.  And any director or management-level position knows that this type of culture can practically destroy any other attempts at office effectiveness and productivity.

So what strategies can the financial aid office take to create a much-needed culture of collaboration?  Below are a few suggestions. Keep in mind that many times the most obvious-sounding tips are often also the most overlooked.

  1. Respect others. And demand that they do the same. If respect is already lacking within the existing culture, confront it head-on. But do it respectfully. Respect and confrontation are often treated as mutually exclusive, however confrontation without respect is often destructive. When confrontation and respect are married to each other, confrontation can often build trust. Every successful relationship, both personal and professional, requires mutual trust. Trust-building is the foundation to constructing a culture of successful collaboration.
  2. Enlist others. People help people in need. This takes on a different context for managers than it does staff. The key for managers is to try to delegate collaboratively, as opposed to delegating as an authoritarian. Authoritative delegation communicates power, whereas collaborative delegation communicates need. Managers often have a personal preference for the former, however people naturally want to collaborate when they receive the latter.
  3. Empower others. This may seem somewhat redundant with the suggestion to enlist others, but there is an important distinction to be made between the two. Many try to enlist others without also empowering them. To ask someone for help is one thing, to entrust them with ownership in a job is another. Collaboration is always a two-way street. Empower others to succeed and they will return the favor.
  4. Be interested. Motivational author Paul Arden is known for writing, “If you want to be interesting, be interested.” Others will find you engaging when you first find them engaging. The most effective managers are those who daily seek to learn from those they manage. People naturally want to collaborate when they feel valued.
  5. Be teachable. This takes the suggestion to be interested one step further. Naturally, people love being experts. However, experts are just noise-makers when they don’t have a teachable audience. Anyone can fake being interested, but only those who are engaged in the learning process will be the ones who create collaborative relationships. Be willing to learn from everyone, and they will be willing to learn from you.
  6. Communicate. Err on the side of over-communication. Steve Chandler, author of 100 Ways to Motivate Others, keenly noted that “Communication solves almost all problems. Avoidance worsens all problems.” If you don’t fill in the gaps then others will. And more than not those gaps will be filled with the negative options.  People tend to assume that lack of communication is purposeful because most of us hate confrontation. Don’t let others fill in your communication gaps.
  7. Have fun! Many try to balance fun and professionalism on each side of a scale. This approach can be complicated, as just one instance of tipping the scale too far on the fun side can be risky to the productivity and health of the office. Instead, when professionalism is viewed as a filter, you can push as much fun as possible through that filter. “Professionalized fun” might sound like a bit of an oxymoron, but it is often not as dry as it might sound. Be creative. Take some notes from the television show The Office. Hold an annual Office Olympics. Implement Popcorn Fridays. Celebrate birthdays. In the end, any efforts to relax a rigid atmosphere will enhance a culture of collaboration.

To be fair, seven suggestions are really just the tip of the iceberg. What has worked well for you? What would you add to this list?

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