How Leaders Kill Collaboration - Even When They Say They Want It
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executive came in wearing a designer suit, white shirt and a power tie.
He checked the time on his Rolex wristwatch and placed his elegant
briefcase on the table. He exuded authority, power and status, and
would have been perfectly dressed for a Board of Directors’ function.
But that wasn’t the kind of meeting he was chairing.
had assembled a multi-level, multi-functional group – a diagonal slice
of 30 people from across the organization and had taken them off-site
for two days to co-create the necessary steps for achieving the
company’s new strategic plan. The hope was that collaboration and
knowledge sharing would begin at this meeting and expand from here into
every department. It wouldn’t be easy. The theme was “we’re all in this
together” – already a touchy subject as the employees knew there would
be cut-backs in spending and employee numbers (and few expected that
“together” meant that executives would also be asked to cut costs and
reduce their ranks).
despite some initial reluctance on the part of the attendees, the first
day had gotten off to a good start. Told to come dressed comfortably,
most people were in jeans or slacks with polo or tee shirts.
Consultants hired to facilitate the event had done a good job warming
up the group and helping them begin to bond.
he came in to lead the meeting. And from the moment
he walked into the room, all hope for collaboration flew out the
window. Not only was he making a late entrance (instead of arriving
earlier that morning with the rest of the group), he didn’t look
like one of the team. He looked like a “suit,” a hierarchical leader
who would ask for input only as a rubber stamp for decisions he’d
never know why he chose to make that impression. Maybe he had a
business appointment with an important client later that day, maybe he
thought that this was the way an executive should always dress, or
maybe he just didn’t think it mattered. But as anyone who was there
that day could tell you, it not only mattered, it was pivotal.
I could have caught him before he entered the room, I would have told
him to take off his jacket, loosen his tie and roll up his
shirtsleeves. (I’d also have advised him to remove the Rolex and leave
the Gucci briefcase on a chair in the corridor.) But, instead, all I
could do was sit there and watch as resistance and skepticism built and
rippled through the assembled group.
addition to dressing like you "have all the answers," a leader can
unintentionally sabotage collaboration by sending the wrong body
language signals. Because it really doesn’t take much to make people
feel left out. The nonverbal signals that make someone feel unimportant
are often slight: letting your gaze wander while he or she is talking
or angling your shoulders even a quarter turn away. Trivial actions if
they happen only infrequently, are most likely not going to demoralize
your team. But if you are continually off-handed, neglectful or
unresponsive to certain individuals, your behavior will not go
you appear to play favorites by using more positive nonverbal signals
with some people than with others, if your body language excludes only
some individuals, and especially if those exclusions result in hurt
feelings, it can be seriously destructive to any collaborative effort.
Team members who feel that they and their ideas are being ignored will
simply withdraw and stop contributing, and the sense of unease created
by that withdrawal will broadcast itself subliminally to the whole
the other hand, if you use inclusive, pro-social, body language
(equally) with all team members, you create an emotionally rich
environment that supports collaboration and high performance.
example, a genuine smile not only stimulates your own sense of
well-being, it also tells those around you that you are approachable,
cooperative, and trustworthy. A genuine smile comes on slowly, crinkles
the eyes, lights up the face, and fades away slowly. By way of
contrast, a counterfeit or “polite” smile comes on quickly and never
reaches the eyes.
since collaboration depends on participants’ willingness to speak up
and share ideas and insights, try using your head – literally. Research
shows that you can increase participation by nodding your head with
clusters of three nods at regular intervals.
tilting is another signal that you are interested, curious and
involved. The head tilt is a universal gesture of giving
the other person an ear. As such, head tilts can be
very positive cues when you want to encourage people to expand on their
of the most powerful motivators to encourage participation is eye
contact, because people feel that they have your attention and interest
as long as you are looking at them. As a leader, you set the tone for
the meeting. If you want people to speak up, focus on whoever is
talking to make sure that he or she feels you are listening.
talking with someone we like or are interested in, we subconsciously
switch our body posture to match that of the other person – mirroring
his or her nonverbal behavior. When you synchronize your body
language with members of your team, you signal that you are connected
face people directly. Even a quarter turn away creates a barrier (the
“cold shoulder”), signaling a lack of interest and causing the speaker
to shut down. Physical obstructions are especially detrimental to the
effective exchange of ideas. Take away anything that blocks your view
or forms a barrier between you and the rest of the team. Close your
laptop, turn off your cell phone, put your purse or briefcase to the
if you think it makes you look more efficient (or important) to be
continually checking a laptop or cell phone for messages, I’d advise
you to think again. As one member of a management team recently told
me, “There’s this senior exec in our department who has a reputation of
being totally addicted to his Blackberry. He is constantly on the
machine during internal meetings. When he finally focuses on others,
peers make jokes about his ‘coming back to earth.’ We know he’s not
tracking the conversation because he keeps asking questions that have
been already responded to. The result is that when he does contribute,
he has no credibility.”
bottom line is that it is important to align your nonverbal behavior
with your leadership goals. If you really want to build a collaborative
team, make sure you look like you do!
About the Author
Kinsey Goman, Ph.D. is the author of “The
Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt – How
You Lead.” The impact of body
language on leadership effectiveness is a topic she addresses in
keynote speeches and seminars on "The Power of Collaborative
Leadership.” She can be reached at Carol@CarolKinseyGoman.com. Authors Google+
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