Most people have to collaborate with others at least once in their lives, even if they've started their own businesses or work resolutely solo most of the time. And figuring out how to work better with others can be tricky if you don't know how to make it easy for everybody involved. Want to ace the project? The tricks for smooth sailing in collaborative situations, according to science, are all about knowing your collaborators, being self-reliant, and understanding how to show people the exit if they're being unhelpful.
Humans are wired for cooperation. While for a long time people thought that as a species we were essentially selfish, evolutionarily primed to look after number one, more recent research has demonstrated that we're very good at mutually beneficial behavior, and practise it in ways that are unknown to any other species in the animal kingdom. We've managed to make collaboration into a big part of human behavior, striving together to achieve big, significant pay-offs like planting harvests or building settlements. That doesn't mean that we're all naturally good at it, though. And collaborators, even when they've got identical goals, can have seriously crossed wires, fail to support one another, or just annoy everybody to death. Here are three tips from science to make sure that doesn't happen.
1Know Your Collaborators
Do a lot of collaboration over Skype or the phone? It helps to feel like you actually know who you're working with. In a study in 2016, Cornell scientists found that keeping things small when you're collaborating long-distance, and then trying to maintain strong relationships where you feel like you're actually bonding, is what makes cooperation work. And that's something that can apply in the office, too.
The key to closeness? The Cornell scientists say that the best and most productive teams they studied communicated frequently. Nobody overshared, dominated the conversation, crossed boundaries or became too personal; it's just that everybody was in the loop, nobody felt left out, and every stage of the collaboration was covered. If something's going wrong, or you just think it's time for a status update, tell the other people in your group what's happening with your particular workload and encourage news from them.
2Don't Rely On Them To Remember Things
It turns out that collaborations can fall apart because we rely on other people to remember things for us. A 2016 study published in the Psychological Bulletin found that group work can actually be harmful because it encourages something called "collaborative inhibition." When four people who'd worked in a group on a task had their memories compared to four people who'd worked individually and then pooled their knowledge at the end, the group workers had lower scores.
The problem, the researchers behind this say, is that everybody has their own way of remembering things, and trying to collaborate means that we get caught up in other peoples' strategies. If you need to work with others on a task that requires a lot of memorizing, are trying to study together, or just need to have a lot of dates and deadlines in mind, do not trust anybody else to remember these things unless they've been explicitly assigned that task. Delegate, but still keep everything written down.
3Know When To Show People The Exit
According to work done by Ohio State researchers and published in early 2018, the key to feeling more positive about collaboration is picking people you know and trust, and feeling like you have control over the process. They ran a series of experimental "games" using Amazon's Mechanical Turk, a work marketplace, where people could choose to be collaborative or not. And they found that two factors strongly influenced peoples' willingness to collaborate: whether they knew or were connected to the other people in the game in some way, and whether they were able to cut somebody loose.
The first isn't a surprise; we like to work with people we know, because there are fewer surprises and we prefer to go with trustworthy connections over unknowns. But control is also a big factor. Being stuck with an uncooperative collaborator is a challenge many of us face, and this experiment shows that's a big deal for humans; we feel much more positive about getting involved in group work if we think we can eliminate anybody who isn't pulling their weight. If this rings a bell with you, it's worth checking workplace regulations, HR rules or just having a conversation with management about what everybody on the team can do if one member isn't pulling their weight. That control will make you all more comfortable.
You're ready to get started on that group project. And if things get uncomfortable, be prepared to talk about what's not working; it's possible that somebody else in the group needs to know these tips, too.