Business Series Podcast Ep.15 – Improving Collaboration in Your Teams with Dr. Mark Howard

In this episode, Ankush speaks with Dr Mark Howard about collaboration in the workplace. Some of what they discuss include:

– What do we mean by collaboration

– Utilising a company’s most valuable resource

– The role of leaders in creating a collaborative culture

– A case study to demonstrate how to create a collaborative culture

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Improving Collaboration in Your Teams with Dr. Mark Howard

Full Transcript


[00:00:03.01] Ankush: Welcome to the business series podcast. My name is Ankush Jain, and I’m a state of mind coach, working with businesses and individuals. On each episode of this series, I’ll be speaking to a coach or trainer on a different topic relevant to your career or personal development. Enjoy.


[00:00:24.11] Ankush: Welcome back to another episode of the business series podcast. Today, I’m joined by Dr. Mark Howard, a clinical psychologist who’s helped numerous businesses help their employees move to feelings of well-being and health. Hi Mark.


[00:00:39.02] Mark: Hi Ankush, nice to be here with you.


[00:00:42.19] Ankush: Great to have you on the show, and today we’re going to be talking about a different topic than the one we’ve covered already and that’s a topic of improving collaboration in your teams. So, excited to talk about that with you.


[00:00:56.26] Mark: Yeah me too Ankush.


[00:00:58.25] Ankush: Why don’t we just jump straight in as I usually do, and sometimes I like to jump into the title, which sometimes we can take for granted, what do you actually mean by “collaboration?” And why is that important?


[00:01:14.13] Mark: Well collaboration is really a positive way of working together as a team, or as a leader of a company or an organization, in that it is a different way of operating with other people who are part of your staff, different from arguing points of view, or who’s got the right answers, or, even using analytical thinking, so, if really calls upon the group wisdom to come up with something that takes care of an organizational issue or problem or programme. I see that in my working with companies to develop collaboration, there’s three areas that are valuable about collaboration. One is, everybody in the team, let’s just use a team, but it could be an organization or company, has a wisdom that can be called on in the right climate, that can contribute to the organization’s goal to solve the organization’s problem, to come up with a new way of reaching customers. So that’s something we can rely on, it’s also that another point that’s helpful in collaboration, is realising that everybody in a meeting, everybody working on a project, is effective by the quality of thinking they’re in, so in a meeting if you have a member who’s in some insecure thinking, they’re going to behave differently than somebody who’s excited about an idea they have, and that helps a great deal as a leader coming into a team to form collaborative kinds of communications, and the other point that’s really helpful in collaborative work, is that the listening you do is to listen for wisdom, so it’s a different kind of listening that really allows people to feel understood, be able to be forthcoming with the ideas they have, so instead of listening to people’s ideas, I mean people’s opinions or qualifications about things or reactions to things, you’re really listening beyond that to try to hear the language of wisdom that’s present in each staff member, so, the movement then is to acclimate in a meeting that we would call collaborative, that nurtures the creative process, so that’s what I mean by collaboration.


[00:03:54.00] Ankush: Yeah that’s great Mark, because you know, as you were talking, it really helped me think about some of the other podcasts we’ve done in this series and you know how pretty much everyone has either said or inferred that the greatest assets that a company has is the people they hire, and as you were talking what occurred to me was, well if we can get our employees to talk to each other, we’re in essence, maximizing our most valuable asset. And yet if we aren’t able to get collaboration working, especially in, well I was going to say especially in larger organizations, but I guess it could be organizations of any size, if people aren’t talking with each other effectively, then companies are wasting or leaving money on the table, because they’re not utilizing the most effective asset effectively.


[00:04:50.14] Mark: Yes when I did programmes for BAE Systems, which is a large engineering company when we introduced the four day programme of collaborative developments in teams, the president of the company would always introduce it as saying that every engineering company in North America, hires the same quality of talent, he’s saying that the edge this company has, is in developing collaborative communication among it’s teams, and he said that’s the edge we have in the marketplace, and I thought that’s a beautiful point about beginning to work in teams, particularly as the leader, setting the tone of collaboration rather than competition or ego-driven conversations.


[00:05:42.23] Ankush: I’m reading a book at the moment by a guy called Tom Peters, who wrote In Search for Excellence, or co-authored that, which has been I think voted one of the best business books of all time, and I’m just at the start of it, of his new book and he’s writing about how he feels cross-functional teams, or cross-functional working, is one of the most important things that companies can address, and making that more effective. So, I think what we’re talking about today is something that’s very very relevant for organizations and companies, so, you talked about a few things around listening really to people, looking for the best in them, but, what can someone who’s listening to this that either manages a team or leads a team, or even who’s in a team, what can they do to foster a culture or a spirit of collaboration?


[00:06:41.19] Mark: Well again, the first thing is that it starts with us, I was a leader of a team of eight PhD psychologists, so, collaboration starts with us wanting that, and, what that requires is that we really do begin to see that our team has the capacity to go and develop ideas that will help team or the programme or the organization meet its goals or solve a problem or create something new. The other piece about it is that the leader has to have understanding for its team, you have to, yourself have understanding that like you, everybody operates from the way they’re thinking, and there’s no right or wrong about that, you just have to see that that’s happening, I’ll tell you a story of how that worked for me in my team, but that’s another piece, we have to see that, including ourselves, the thinking we’re in in the moment kind of dictates how we’re going to work with one another, having some understanding for that as a leader, you can help people who’s thinking might be bit insecure for the, during the morning meeting, or even in working in the project with members of the other team, and you can support people that you know are thinking in more positive fruitful ways. So having understanding about that particular aspect of our – of how people function, helps create a climate of collaboration because you’re not looking at people being wrong with the way they’re operating, you just see that, you’ve got to speak to the way people are thinking. But the most important piece is the listening piece, and it really requires that when you’re listening in a team meeting, or visiting your team as it’s working on a project, you’re really listening beyond what they’re saying or how they’re operating, to the language of wisdom in them, the ideas that could be helpful to the team. So you’re being careful yourself, not to listen with your own personal thinking, your own opinions about what someone’s saying, your own critique about what someone’s saying, your own idea about how wrong it will be, but you’re really listening with more curiosity to see what is the grain of wisdom in what team members are presenting to you. And so if you look at all three aspects of that, it really leads to a feeling of collaboration in the staff, and when people get into the feeling of collaboration, I know we’re talking about feeling here, but it’s really just that people are feeling relaxed, peaceful, capable of having outside the box thinking, feeling safe to offer what their thinking is, those kinds of things, and when people have that climate, that’s where creative wisdom lies.


[00:10:05.28] Ankush: So just to kind of pull out a couple of points from that, one, what you said, it really starts with you, so if you’re a leader or even a member of a team that you want to foster better collaboration with, I think what I heard you say is, it’s number one you being open to that, and where you’re coming from, if you’re coming from a positive place where you’re looking for collaboration, that in itself kind of helps create the culture of the team, is that correct?


[00:10:33.10] Mark: Yes, that’s where it has to start, because, and it can’t be fake, because people will read genuine collaboration compared to thinking it’s a good idea, yes, it must come from you seeing that that’s the best way people can work together to create what you want to have a team move toward.


[00:10:57.00] Ankush: And then, something you said a couple of times, you said, listen for the wisdom in the other people, what do you mean? Because maybe people don’t use that word, or maybe misunderstand what that word means, but when you say wisdom, are you basically saying that it doesn’t matter who is in the room, it doesn’t matter how senior they are, that every single person in the room is capable of good ideas, to help move that project or that meeting forward?


[00:11:23.22] Mark: Yes that’s right, I’m talking about that you’re listening for the language of wisdom which could, there’s a range for that, versus critiquing what you’re hearing. So it could be like in my team, when I had to introduce a change in a work schedule, because we needed to be open to our customers for people who have a working schedule of 9-5, and that meant that all of us had to do evening hours which we never did before, so I went in, in the proposal of this listening for grains of wisdom and so one way that that comes out is with generosity, in the climate of collaboration, when someone could not do a particular evening because they had childcare, in the climate of collaboration somebody came up with a solution for that, somebody offered to take care of that evening themselves, if this person would take care of this other time. And it could range all the way to, ideas about how we can meet this more efficiently, so, we came up with a group programme, we came up with an educational programme, we came up with a drop in programme, all things I hadn’t thought about, how we would do our evening clinic, so, it really is knowing that no matter what the position is for someone on the team, no matter what the academic training is for someone on the team, everybody is capable in a climate of collaboration, to offer creative ideas for their team to go forward. That makes sense, doesn’t it? If you look at yourself through your history of working in organizations, when you’re in kind of a fear base critiquing kind of meeting, don’t you feel differently than when you’re in a welcoming meeting, a meeting welcoming any idea you have? That’s kind of the idea behind collaborative leadership.


[00:13:33.15] Ankush: So some people might be listening to this and saying, or interpreting what you’re saying is, just being overly nice, and they might be thinking that well, isn’t collaboration best when two people can speak their mind, and not have to just say, oh every idea’s a good idea, what would you say to someone like that, are you saying that we don’t speak straight to people or are you saying that we can speak straight and it’s more, able to land when you’re coming from a good place?     


[00:14:07.22] Mark: Well I’m not sure how this could be seen as, we’re talking about it like a climate itself that allows for people to present ideas, and for a leader to be straightforward with that they’re thinking about how people are operating with one another, or the ideas they’re presenting, but when you speak from a place of wanting to form a collaborative working climate, and you’re needing to be straightforward with someone in terms of either their behavior or their ideas, it comes across differently than if you’re coming from a place where you’re in a right and wrong position, or you’re in a competition position, or, you’re in a critiquing position, so that’s all I’m talking about, is really the kind of place you’re wanting to lead the meeting from within you, again, I think in a more collaborative environment, you will find that people are more easily straightforward, they don’t really hold back because they’re afraid of what you will say, or someone else will say, they know that they would receive an understanding, and they know that it’ll be able to be talked about, but again, it’s really important to get a sense of this listening piece, because in the listening piece, you don’t want to compare what someone is saying about an idea they have, to your idea, you want to let their idea influence you, that you really see there’s some grain of truth here that we can work with, so that goes beyond just being nice, that goes beyond really trying to hear something that could be valuable beyond what you know, and if you could stay in that position of listening, people will become much more contributory and be able to be straightforward about things with people, so, you could say no to an idea from many different voices, can’t you? And when you say no to an idea from a collaborative point of view, people take it differently than when you come to it from a critiquing point of view. So when I went in to offer to my team that we needed to change our schedule, I had one idea about how to go about it. But being in a collaborative climate with my team, and we’d been working that way for a couple of years already, people were freely able to say, well no, that doesn’t sound like all we can do when I started to offer my way of doing it, you know? One staff member said, well I’m not sure that’s all we could do, and, you know, again in a collaborative climate I didn’t take that personally, I just said, well, let’s hear what you could add. And I’m listening for the grain of truth in that, and then people just kind of piggybacked on that. So, it really goes beyond this idea of being nice to really hearing something in which people, some place in people from which they’re sharing that allows the programme or the organization to go forward, because people can speak more freely with one another, did that make sense?


[00:17:41.11] Ankush: Absolutely, and thank you for clarifying that, that’s really helpful. Do you have a case study of maybe where you’ve worked with an organization, or a manager to help them really improve their team dynamics, and get a spirit of collaboration going?


[00:17:59.09] Mark: Well, I mean this example really speaks to the point here, it’s something, it’s a project I was hired for several years ago now, but locally there was this manufacturing company, and the owner of the manufacturing company heard about this idea of bringing collaboration to all of his workers, and so I went to observe him in the work setting and I saw a very critical owner-manager, he wa hands on but he was very critical, so, when we sat down to talk and he asked me what I could do for his workers, what I set up for his workers, I said, that we needed to look at the climate of collaboration and get him there first, and he was open to it, he was open to the points that I shared with you about beginning to develop the eyes for understanding, where his workers come from within their thinking and how to listen to workers, his workers for collaborative ideas, and to just kind of, for himself, really want a collaborative environment, so I started with him, and we had several meetings in helping him move from a right-wrong position, and evaluative-critical position, not for him to ignore things he needed to correct, but if he needed to correct things, how to share it from the tone of collaboration. And he quickly moved there, and so then all these creative ideas came up for him in terms of creating the climate for his workers, he started to see that he wanted to do more for his workers, and help them just feel good working there, set a positive tone, I’m just sharing one thing that came from it, he also set up collaborative meetings for his management team, but I just wanted to share what he did for his workers, and kind of show the results of that. So he started to bring gifts for people who were having birthdays, he started to give people, he would call it, positive days off, so once a month, Friday’s people could take that off, and he started to just ask people about their lives and how their family was and he started to go and just be interested in how they saw their work. These are people on the line, you know? People who are running machines, manufacturing, and people who are putting the products into boxes and so forth, and he just started to have, listen to people in terms of what are the grains of truth here, how are they seeing the job, what can we do better? Now the reason I’m focussing here is that, this was like three months later, I came back for a follow-up check in, and he told me a story that just kinda blew my mind, he said that, he now had this collaborative climate in place for 2.5 months, and he said that when he went to go down to the manufacturing floor, one of the workers on the assembly line came up to him, and he said, “I’ve got an idea about how to make that machine better,” and when he detailed the idea, it was a workable idea and it did make the machine better, and the owner of the company could never have expected that a person on the line of a manufacturing plant could come up with a way to make a machine operate better when he had these other engineers available, who that was the job for. Now the reason I share that is because it speaks to the point I started with that, when people are living and working in a team, where there is a collaborative climate, the wisdom we all have to create, the genius in us has a chance to present itself. And it goes beyond people’s academic achievements, it goes beyond a lot of kind of like measured intelligence, to an intelligence we have that comes up when we’re creative. We see things we hadn’t noticed before from our own personal thinking, so, this is a story of working with an owner and then with teams within a manufacturing plant to create a collaborative climate, and some of the significant results that occurred as a result of it.


[00:23:10.17] Ankush: Just to absolutely really be clear, this wasn’t just about the team getting along better, and him appreciating them more and being a nicer place to live, but I’m assuming there were some real bottom-line results to this way of working too.


[00:23:25.16] Mark: Yeah that’s right, I mean, that creative idea would not have emerged if, beforehand, management teams, the people working on the manufacturing floor didn’t also have training with me that led to more collaborative working together. So that was the first thing, and then it led to these kinds of results that were surprising to not only the owner, but to the various teams, because again you know, not understanding collaborative ways of working, people didn’t expect it. People, we get habitual, we get adjusted to people within our teams and we get to see them in the same old way, a collaborative way of working with people is you see your staff in a new light, you see more of who they are as people and as part of your team. So it breaks the mold that we put people in, it goes beyond those assessment instruments that measure people’s personalities or their ability to interact with one another, so there was all that training set up, I didn’t want to take time to explain all of that, I wanted you to get a sense of possibility, I mean this is significant, the owner had his assembly line workers in a mold, of what their potential was, what they were capable of. And when he came upon one of those workers creating something new, he really opened up his eyes to even go beyond what he already began, his way of listening to people and understanding his staff.


[00:25:19.23] Ankush: So what’s the one takeaway you want people to leave this show with?


[00:25:24.04] Mark: Well I want to go back to what the president, in that time, this was like five years ago, the president of BAE Systems said, “all of us in our organizations, in our businesses, if we hire people, we’re looking for the best. And everybody is doing that. The edge we get in the marketplace, to provide more of what your vision is, is to bring in a collaborative climate of working together, it’s the one piece that would really allow for whatever you’d like your business to move toward, to really get, not only your ideas about it, but other people’s ideas, coming from a place of genius, or creativity.” So I think to see the value of adding that piece to your business, would provide you with the edge you need to, not only bring the vision to fruition, expand it, grow it, but also speak to the humanity you want to reach. Because when people can feel a company coming from a collaborative energy, it’s attractive.


[00:26:45.29] Ankush: So Mark, just to wrap up, if people wanted to explore this subject of collaboration or just to speak more with you, what’s the best way that they might do that?


[00:26:54.18] Mark: Well I think for me email would be the best, so, my email address is, My website, you can also find that at,


[00:27:22.06] Ankush: Thank you so much for your time today Mark, and I’ll be back next time with another interviewee, on another topic relevant to business. Thanks for listening to the Business Series Podcast, if you want to hear more, you can click on the subscribe button below, you can share this with someone else who can benefit, or you can like it and encourage others to listen. Also, it would be great if you left a comment below, as I love hearing from listeners, and I want to keep creating great content for you.


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