Is Collaboration driven by Values or Skills?

November 14th 2019


This post is a response to Harvard Business Review’s current article “Cracking the Code of Sustained Collaboration”, written by Francesca Gino.

When it comes to driving and sustaining collaboration in the workplace, what should come first? The article featured on the front cover of the Harvard Business Review’s current edition suggests that all too often, business leaders focus too heavily on values and workspace design, ignoring the important psychological skills which are necessary to embed and maintain collaboration. Importantly, the HBR article asserts, these are skills which can be taught.

At AxiaOrigin, we believe these psychological skills are indeed important. We agree, some of the important characteristics which enable collaboration are indeed learned, and can therefore be trained. Listening, self-awareness, and giving feedback are all imperative norms which we have found to be core within a collaborative culture.

However, we also believe that other critical characteristics of collaboration are innate – one cannot be made to “learn” empathy so easily.

Crucially, trainable skills can go to waste if the values of an organisation do not permit them to be exemplified, recognised and championed as integral to achieving desired outcomes – especially if employees are given no incentive to collaborate.

It is an uncomfortable truth that organisations and their leaders permit this wastage – of talent and value potential – and knowingly fail to pull the levers that ensure collaboration is preserved and sustained for within an organisation.

Instead of delving further into the “why”, we’d like to share the steps we have taken and work for us, anticipating they might work for you and we can compare and contrast approaches.

We would like to emphasise that we are not dismissing the opportunity to train and develop psychological skills to support collaboration. Our advice for the most important step is very different though: place values at the heart of your organisation and collaboration will follow.

1. It all starts from the top

Leaders need to be at the forefront of collaboration effort and exemplify collaboration role modelling. This means being open to receiving feedback, encouraging dissonance to their views, suppressing ego and demonstrating vulnerability. When these characteristics come from the very top, it sets the tone, the boundaries and direction for collaborative effort – not just at work, but in our homes and, frankly, any natural system or cycle – what happens at the top of the organisation, or food chain, critically influences overall performance.

Openness to feedback, and encouragement of dissonance are norms which can certainly be trained, but vulnerable leadership speaks to personal values. When vulnerable leadership is role-modelled from the very top of an organisation, it creates an environment of psychological safety within which collaboration can be nurtured free of inhibitions.

Our CEO Pamela Doherty reflects that “It’s not uncommon to hear senior leaders say that it’s lonely at the top. It’s lonely if there is little authentic human interaction. It’s lonely if there’s an old fashioned view to feedback and coaching is being based around hierarchy downwards into the organisation. It isn’t lonely when you treat people as individual unique people. Instead, you’ll create an environment that supports individuals to be their vulnerable best and certainly enables real (not forced) collaboration.”

2. Understand the correct incentives which will enable collaboration

Certain skills of collaboration can be trained, but if collaboration does not benefit individuals’ professional motives, it will be scuppered. This is where values alignment can really help – incentives may be shared across an organisation if employees share the same values.

This isn’t necessarily about performance or financial incentives, but can come from intrinsic benefits for the individual or team – which are also very much based on the values of the person and the values of the organisation.

Our co-founder Tim Ip recounts: “In Open Innovation we’ve talked about how it’s not just bringing the ‘outside in’, but also the ‘inside out’. Having mutual benefits and incentives to take part in the collaboration process is crucial, and true open collaboration would require more than just a financial incentive – such as a common cause like the UN Sustainable Development Goals.”

There are many ways in which unintended consequences can arise from misunderstanding incentives. To offer an example, it is widespread for organisations to place value on the quantity of feedback received (which encourages backscratching culture of feedback quid pro quo), rather than on the quality and specificity of feedback given by employees.

3. Embed these principles into the decision-making process

Check regularly: what do our values call us to do? This does not mean deliberately placing “collaboration” as an organisational value – it means being centred at all times around common values. We believe this paves the way for collaboration to be at the heart of a team’s natural dynamic.

Consider the decision to hire an employee. Collaboration behaviours are not tested effectively in the vast majority of current hiring processes. Imagine a scenario where the hiring process involved coaching, training and a true exemplification of collaboration values, norms and behaviours. Interviewees would truly experience the culture of a company (rather than rehearsing a list of corporate platitudes in preparation for an obvious question on values). They would leave the experience better off, regardless of the outcome, and having learned something which may benefit others around them. It is a win-win situation.

This is an example of an approach particularly championed by our co-founder, Hayder Allawi. He states: “Too often, values are just nice words and phrases plastered on the walls of a company office. But when employees see their peers rewarded and promoted for hitting their targets by any means rather than for doing the right thing, those values become meaningless. A company needs to truly live its values in everything that it does internally and externally.”

Our world is currently in the grip of a worsening environmental and social emergency, which will necessitate effective and urgent collaboration across businesses, governments and individuals. This is an emergency which requires a catalytic shift in our values as businesses and societies, if we are to truly meet the United Nations’ 2030 targets for sustainability.

On our journey as AxiaOrigin we are striving to exemplify the leadership values which will be key to supporting the collaboration that is so obviously needed. We believe that driving ‘collaboration waves’ with businesses and the public sector will be key to supporting a more prosperous and resilient future in the so called ‘decade of delivery’ starting in a few months. We are completely committed to achieving this, and are openly inviting our peers to work with us in supporting these aims.

If you have a shareable view on the art and science of collaboration, we’d love to hear from you. In the spirit of our values and collaboration norms, we welcome readers to debate anything we have said that you would like to break down or challenge.


Marios Kyriacou | Co-founder