Where would you prefer to work? A workplace rife with conflict or an institution that reeks of collegiality? Easy answer, right? Yet we seem to have built cultures, particularly in higher education, that encourage conflict!
Robert Cipriano, Ed.D., professor and department chair at Southern Connecticut State University, has been researching, writing and consulting on collegiality for over a decade. He reminds us that higher education is founded on bringing together people with divergent and conflicting ideas. No wonder there is dissent!
However, to succeed and tackle the challenges facing higher education today, Anita highlighted the importance of collaboration in her recent post. Or as Cipriano puts it, “we all can agree to disagree without being disagreeable” -what he calls “positive dissent.”
In his recent book, Facilitating a Collegial Department in Higher Education: Strategies for Success, Cipriano lists a set of key activities that leaders can take to build a collegial culture:
- Help people achieve their goals
- Develop a genuine interest in each team member
- Treat people with respect and dignity – always
- Remember that relationships built on trust and fed by personal integrity are the foundation
- Recognize that poor behavior by others does not require you to respond in kind (but you do need to respond)
- Model characteristics you wish to see in your team members
- Acknowledge that leadership is more a function of people’s relationships than the position
- Recognize people publicly for their achievements
When I read this list it all makes sense, yet as an old saying goes, common sense is not always common practice! Where do you have an opportunity to practice building a culture of collegiality?
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African proverb
Leaders in public higher education face numerous challenges today. Just yesterday the headline in the Pioneer Press announced “MnSCU’s $12.7 million shortfall deeper than expected.” With declines in student enrollment and increases in negotiated compensation for several employee groups, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) leaders commented that colleges and universities will need to bolster their enrollment strategies and they will be looking to trim costs. This is a common scenario for many institutions across the nation.
Other challenges in public higher education today include, but are not limited to: new technologies, changing student and employee demographics, demand for innovation, competition from for-profit institutions. Not surprisingly, each of these challenges are complex and not easily solved. They require the collaboration of faculty, staff, and administrators working together to manage them effectively.
In a major effort dubbed “Charting the Future,” MnSCU has been encouraging increased collaboration in the last few years to ensure that our colleges and universities can deliver on its commitments to grow Minnesota’s economy and open the doors of educational opportunity to all Minnesotans. Teams of people worked together diligently to produce recommendations that could be implemented at the institutional level and system level. And now, many of those recommendations are moving forward. Still, implementing those recommendations will take additional collaboration because most of the solutions are not simple and require creating something that did not exist before or generating ideas for new service delivery or know-how.
Given the need for increased need collaboration in all our workplaces, it begs the question, what can leaders do to promote a culture of collaboration? In an earlier blog, I cited Dan Sanker and his ideas for fostering collaboration. Additionally, in his book, Collaborate: The Art of We, Sanker gives sage advice on how to assemble a collaborative team. He advises looking for people who have the following key traits and characteristics:
- A positive attitude, open-mindedness, curiosity, and enthusiasm
- Good communication skills
- Flexibility and the ability to tolerate ambiguity
- A willingness to take risks
- Critical thinking and problem-solving skills
- The ability to be self reflective
- Good interpersonal skills
- The ability to see the big picture
I recall when I was a graduate student in the 1980s and was hired for my first job in higher education administration. My boss at the time told me that the most important attribute needed for anyone to be successful in higher education was the ability to tolerate ambiguity. I’ve reflected on that conversation many times over the years and have found truth in it. Cultivating my ability to tolerate ambiguity sure has helped me to be a better collaborator.
What traits and characteristics do you look for in people as you assemble collaborative teams?
“Hackman’s paradox: Groups have natural advantages: they have more resources than individuals; greater diversity of resources; more flexibility in deploying the resources; many opportunities for collective learning; and, the potential for synergy. Yet studies show that their actual performance often is subpar relative to “nominal” groups (i.e. individuals given the same task but their results are pooled.) The two most common reasons: groups are assigned work that is better done by individuals or are structured in ways that cap their full potential.”
~ Richard Hackman, Harvard professor and team expert
Wait a minute! Most of the business and leadership literature published in the last couple decades extolls the virtues of collaboration in our workplaces. And it seems that collaboration is the new mantra among leaders in higher education, with leaders admonishing staff and faculty to “move out of their silos” or “create cross-disciplinary or cross-campus partnerships.” Yet, as Richard Hackman observed, collaboration does have its limitations.
The benefits of collaboration are great, and can include:
- Diversity of Perspectives: bringing people from varying disciplines and backgrounds together to work on a project can generate greater creativity and problem-solving by looking at things from different angles
- Increased Synergy: forming collaborative teams with members who have varied expertise and clear roles and responsibilities can bring new solutions to the table
- Balanced Decision Making: including stakeholders in decisions can reduce the occurrence biased or partisan decisions as they look at the effect of their decisions on all stakeholder groups
However, collaboration does have its limits, and if overused in an organization, can result in:
- Group Think: groups that work together over time can sometimes be lulled into “going along” with a persuasive member
- Mediocre Results: involving more people in a collaboration can water down the results due to the number of compromises in the project that are made to satisfy all stakeholders
- Slow Progress: depending on the scope of the collaboration and the size of the group, including numerous stakeholders in multiple decisions can slow down the effort
Like other paradoxes or polarities that we manage in our workplaces, like change and continuity, collaboration is best seen as one part of a polarity between competition and collaboration. Both have its own benefits and limitations. As leaders, our role is often to determine where is it most advantageous to employ collaborative efforts and where might we employ competitive efforts.
How have you managed the collaboration vs. competition paradox in your work?
“Collaboration is defined as the synergistic relationship formed when two or more entities working together produce something much greater than the sum of their individual abilities and contributions.” – Dan Sanker
As Dee Anne mentioned in her last post, leaders need the ability to work across disciplines, sectors, and geographical boundaries to solve our grand challenges. In other words, they need the ability to work collaboratively.
For the last several years, collaboration has become a mantra of sorts within the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU). It’s the kind of behavior we say we want to model, encouraging all faculty, staff, and administrators to think beyond their self-interests or the boundaries of their own units, colleges, or universities, to the greater good. We aspire to work collaboratively to address our some of our own grand challenges within MnSCU, like keeping tuition affordable in the face of declining federal and state funding or ensuring that our students have access to education that prepares them to lead in every sector of Minnesota’s economy.
As a leader, you might ask, what can you do to create a culture that fosters collaboration? In his book, Collaborate! The Art of We, Dan Sanker says that while there is no one recipe for success, there are certain practices found among organizations that create and maintain collaborative cultures. Here are a few:
- Establish trust
- Give people enough time to collaborate
- Provide access to people and information
- Encourage communication
- Help people hold productive meetings
- Provide tools that facilitate collaboration
- Recognize and reward collaborative efforts
Some of the most satisfying work that I have been a part of in higher education has been the result of collaboration across disciplines and boundaries and working towards a common, larger goal. The best of those collaborations were built on trust, open communication, with resources allocated towards the efforts and clear sponsorship from top leaders.
What has worked to foster collaboration and work toward the common good in your experience?