Want to be better at collaboration? Take care of your brain

by | May 11, 2019 | Blog | 0 comments

How well do you collaborate?

Collaboration is a valuable skill much in demand these days. Two or more heads are better than one to deal with the vast complexity, uncertainty and quantity of work as well as the diverse stakeholders we face.

Agreeing on what collaboration is proves to be simple, compared to figuring out how to do it. It can be challenging to work with others to create, develop or decide something – even to agree on the exact question you’re trying to answer, the problem you’re solving or the solution that’s needed.

“The act of collaboration is an art form,” according to Jeremy Henderson-Teelucksingh, MA, MHR  Counselor, Coach, Consultant, Indigo Path Collective. “It’s not something that is natural in the workplace and it really should be taught. Having insight into the tools and challenges to collaboration is incredibly needed in today’s workplace.”

To collaborate, you can’t just tap into other peoples’ expertise, experiences, and ideas to bolster yours. You need to work with individuals in countless ways, balancing their needs along with your own. In other words, being cooperative is the opposite of being selfish.

Collaboration works even better when everyone involved takes time to listen, be open, show respect, be empathetic, participate in conversations, commit to taking actions, follow through, be supportive and helpful, compromise when necessary, practice good communication habits, and be an all-around team player.

There’s one more important tool for collaboration, which we often take for granted – healthy brains. Specifically, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DPC), the area of the brain involved in regulating emotions, pursuing goals, planning and working memory needs to turn on to support cooperation.

The DPC serves as a type of brake on selfish impulses when cooperating and collaborating, according to Dr. Jay Van Bavel, a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University and one of my NeuroLeadership Institute professors.

To test their hypothesis that the DPC is involved in cooperating, Jay and the team of NYU psychologists conducted an experiment with individuals who had brain damage to their DPC as well as a control group of healthy participants.

As reported in their study, Dissociable contributions of the prefrontal cortex in group-based cooperation, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, their hypothesis proved accurate. Research participants with the damage to their DPC were more likely to be selfish, and the greater the damage the more extreme selfishness. You also can read about the study in this Quartz article.

What’s the point of these research findings for collaboration at work?

If possible, surround yourself with team members who are good collaborators. Based on the NYU research, when you’re surrounded by others who collaborate well, you can count on them and their peer pressure to help you work well with others.

Also, knowing how your brain works can help you succeed at collaboration rather than get stuck or worse, fail.

For example, you and your DPC and the rest of your prefrontal cortex are better able to practice self-control when you’re well-rested, comfortable and not hungry or thirsty.

To help you stay in control, whenever you notice yourself or others acting sluggish, saying they’re hungry, fiddling (especially multi-tasking), or showing signs of irritability, take a break. And at a minimum, take a stretch break at least every 90 minutes. Trying to muscle through can make everyone more peeved and contribute to bad outcomes.

Also, as both a team leader and member, look for ways to put people in a “reward” rather than “threat” state. That means making sure individuals feel included, rather than excluded; are recognized and respected; have an opportunity to speak; and ideally know what you expect from them. We all must deal with a lot of uncertainty these days, but the more people feel a sense of belonging as well as being heard, the more they’ll be open to working with others.

And, watch your words to encourage more collaboration. Use language that’s more cooperative than competitive, as I explain in my latest Forbes article, Why and how to switch from competitive to collaborative talk.

Are you ready to improve your practice of the art and science of collaboration?


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