Overcoming Common Barriers to Collaboration, Part 1

Leadership Matters

Leading UX transformation

October 9, 2017

“Organizations…often develop barriers that hinder information sharing and collaboration. … The job of a leader is to spot these barriers and tear them down….”—Morten T. Hansen

Organizations differ in their ability to collaborate within and across teams and business units. A unique combination of organizational, cultural, and interpersonal barriers to collaboration afflicts any organization that is experiencing difficulty collaborating. Therefore, to assess their organization’s ability to collaborate, leaders must first determine what barriers to collaboration exist within their organization. One effective way of doing this is to conduct a survey to identify which of the behaviors that hinder collaboration commonly occur within their organization.

Once leaders understand what dysfunctional behaviors are preventing their people and teams from collaborating effectively, they must tailor solutions to address the specific barriers to collaboration that exist within their organization. They must motivate their people to change the behaviors that are preventing or diminishing the success of collaboration within and across teams and business units.

In this column, I’ll describe some common organizational, cultural, and interpersonal barriers to collaboration and provide solutions for overcoming them. To create a culture of collaboration, an organization must overcome these barriers.

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What Is Collaboration?

Collaboration is the act or process of working together with other people or organizations to achieve a common purpose such as creating something or pursuing an intellectual endeavor. Thus, collaboration requires a cohesive team to follow a common process in working toward a shared goal. Typically, the most effective collaborative teams are small—ideally comprising three to six people—whether a team is a cross-functional leadership team, a project team, a multidisciplinary product team, a design team, or some other functional team.

Meetings and collaboration sessions are not the same thing. The purpose of a business meeting is to exchange information, discuss issues, or make decisions. In contrast, the purpose of a collaboration session is to accomplish actual work, working closely with others. To increase the value of the time you spend at work, try to minimize the time you spend in meetings and maximize your engagement in collaboration sessions.

Common Barriers to Collaboration

Some of the most common organizational, cultural, and interpersonal barriers to collaboration include the following:

  1. A lack of respect and trust
  2. Different mindsets
  3. Poor listening skills
  4. Knowledge deficits
  5. A lack of alignment around goals
  6. Internal competitiveness
  7. Information hoarding
  8. Organizational silos
  9. Physical separation

I’ll cover the first four of these barriers to collaboration here, in Part 1 of this two-part series; the remainder in Part 2.

Barrier #1: A Lack of Respect and Trust

Successful interpersonal relationships and, thus, the ability to collaborate effectively require mutual trust and respect. In today’s diverse workplaces, trust and respect are vital. However, people sometimes lack respect for others who are different from them—whether because of differences in age, gender, race, or ethnicity. Sadly, age, gender, and racial discrimination are endemic in technology companies—perhaps even more so on some UX teams.

Cultural divides may exist between people with different backgrounds, who work in different professional roles. For example, technology companies are often Engineering- or Marketing-driven organizations. Often, the supremacy of the preeminent function results in those belonging to that privileged function—or perhaps even the entire organization—having diminished respect for people working in other roles, making them second-class corporate citizens. In the worst work cultures, this problem can assume the magnitude of a caste system.

The barrier of a lack of respect and trust forms the foundation for many of the other barriers to collaboration. Overcoming this barrier will take you a long way toward overcoming other barriers to collaboration.

The Solution

Fostering increased levels of interaction—specifically, direct and, as often as possible, in-person interactions—between people in different roles can help address issues relating to a lack of respect and trust, as follows:

  • For leaders: Arrange regular, interactions between the leaders of different functions. In many cases, such interactions should occur between leaders of all functions to ensure that they accomplish the following:
    • Understand the roles of each other’s teams and the value they provide.
    • Establish open, interpersonal communication with those leading other functions.
    • Develop respectful, trusting relationships with their peers.
    • Share information to develop a common understanding of the problems they face.
    • Align behind their organization’s goals and develop strategies to achieve them.
    • Collaborate to achieve optimal outcomes for the organization.
    • Model collaboration to the entire organization.
  • Across project teams: Arrange regular interactions betweens teams working on different projects to ensure that—in addition to the advice for leaders—teams can do the following:
    • Establish open, interpersonal communication across teams.
    • Be aware of and understand opportunities for cross-team collaboration.
    • Cross-pollinate ideas from different teams to stimulate innovation.
    • Leverage one another’s work rather than reinventing the wheel.
  • For multidisciplinary product teams: Arrange regular interactions among product-team members playing different roles on a project to ensure that—in addition to the advice for leaders—teammates can do the following:
    • Understand one another’s roles, responsibilities, and work practices.
    • Establish open, interpersonal communication with teammates in other disciplines.
    • Work effectively together, in close collaboration—sometimes even working in pairs.
    • Ensure all of the best ideas get implemented, regardless of their source.
    • Avoid having one preeminent discipline be the final arbiter in all decision-making.
    • Balance decision-making power across key team members, ensuring that whoever is best qualified to make a particular decision is the person who ultimately makes it.
    • Get the entire team to participate in UX research so they can learn from direct experience about users’ needs and challenges.

Barrier #2: Different Mindsets

Diversity of viewpoint is an asset for collaborative teams. People with different perspectives see different dimensions of the problems teams are trying to solve and come up with unique solutions for them.

However, diverse mindsets can also present challenges to teams. Our psychological types, needs, power bases, conflict styles, and stress quotients differ, leaving us open to potential misunderstandings. When teammates’ mindsets feel at odds with one another, these differences can seem threatening and engender fear, resistance, and even anger. For example, people who are biased against creativity may show contempt for or belittle others’ ideas because they feel threatened by them.

Keith Sawyer wrote about these two sides of diversity in his book Group Genius:

“Diversity makes teams more creative because the friction that results from multiple opinions drives the team to more original and more complex work. … Conflict keeps the group from falling into the groupthink trap. But conflict is difficult to manage productively because it can easily spiral into destructive interpersonal attacks that interfere with creativity. Diversity enhances performance only when the group flow factors are present, including some degree of shared knowledge; a culture of close listening and open communication; a focus on well-defined goals; autonomy, fairness, and equal participation.”

The Solution

Fostering greater understanding between people with different mindsets can resolve conflicts that result from their differences, as follows:

  • Endeavor to understand teammates whose mindsets differ from yours—whether because of their training and role or demographic differences.
  • Determine the psychological types, needs, power bases, conflict styles, and stress quotients of all team members.
  • Appreciate people’s differences and unique strengths.
  • Be open to others’ perspectives, opinions, and perceptions.
  • Positively reinforce everyone’s efforts to contribute ideas.
  • Help your teammates to feel psychologically safe and, thus, free to express their work-related thoughts and feelings.
  • Communicate your work-related thoughts and feelings openly and honestly, while keeping things positive and nonjudgmental.
  • Refrain from negative criticism, especially of a personal nature.
  • Demonstrate trust.
  • Resolve conflicts fairly.

Barrier #3: Poor Listening Skills

The key to good communication is the ability to listen well—accurately receiving and interpreting what people say—and good communication is an essential element of collaboration. Once teammates have accepted the differences in their mindsets and established respect and trust for each other, they are more willing to give one another the space to communicate their ideas and are more open to their teammates’ ideas. However, there may still be some team members with big egos who don’t really value the opinions of their peers and, thus, may be unwilling to listen to others.

Poor listeners seem distracted or inattentive. They don’t look at, make eye contact with, give their full attention to, or engage with whoever is currently speaking. They often interrupt, making comments or asking questions that take the conversation off track. They exhibit bias, jump to conclusions, and finish others’ sentences. They show no empathy for those who are speaking. They provide no encouraging feedback. Their responses to others’ ideas may be judgmental or dismissive.

Note—I also discussed the importance of being a good listener in my article “13 Human Qualities You Must Have to Succeed in Work and Life.”

The Solution

Effective collaboration depends on teammates’ being open to and really listening to each others’ ideas. Encourage teams to listen well during collaboration sessions and do the following:

  • Be fully present and engaged with the team.
  • Keep an open mind and reserve judgment.
  • Practice active listening, making a conscious effort not only to hear other people’s words, but to listen for and receive the real meaning behind them.
  • Show empathy for and reflect other people’s feelings. Pay attention to the use of language, tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language.
  • Give full attention to whoever is currently speaking.
  • Show that you are listening by turning toward the current speaker, making eye contact, nodding, giving verbal encouragement, smiling, or mirroring his or her emotions.
  • Have only one conversation at a time.
  • Focus on what the current speaker is saying rather than thinking about your reply.
  • Be patient and don’t interrupt.
  • Try to recall key points and reflect them back to the speaker—paraphrasing or summarizing them—or mention them later in the conversation to ensure others feel heard and understood.
  • Let others finish their thoughts before asking clarifying questions.
  • Ask questions only to ensure complete understanding.
  • Be respectful of others’ ideas.
  • Take notes.

Barrier #4: Knowledge Deficits

Knowledge deficits can negatively impact teams’ ability to collaborative effectively. A knowledge deficit can result when any of the following conditions exist:

  • Members of collaborative teams have no basic understanding of the knowledge and practices of their peers who work in other disciplines. Because teammates lack a common frame of reference, they may have difficulty understanding how best to communicate effectively and work well together.
  • A company is so overloaded with information that people are unable to find the information and documents they need. Often, a company’s implementation of knowledge-management systems actually exacerbates the problem of information overload, making information even harder to find.
  • A company is so large, dispersed, or siloed that people cannot find the people who could provide the information and expertise they need—especially when those people work in other business units.
  • People encounter difficulty in transferring their knowledge to colleagues in other business units—especially tacit knowledge about complex technologies and best practices. The weaker the ties between members of collaborative teams, the more difficult it will be for them to transfer tacit knowledge.

The Solution

  • Strive to learn about and understand other disciplines that play critical roles on your team. For example, on product teams, mutual understanding between product managers, UX professionals, and developers is essential.
  • Study or get training in the language and practices of other disciplines that are core to your collaborative team.
  • Pair with people in other disciplines to accomplish work together. For example, a UX designer might do pair design with a front-end developer, leveraging the strengths of both to come up with an optimal solution and learning in the process.
  • Encourage teammates to share knowledge and documents with one another in a central repository. Reward people for sharing knowledge.
  • Allow all team members to post information and documents to the team’s knowledge repository. This prevents the task of posting information from becoming onerous.
  • Put one person in charge of maintaining the information architecture for the team’s knowledge repository. When people don’t post information in the proper place, this person must move the information and notify the person who posted it.
  • Identify gaps in a team’s informal network of useful relationships across other teams, functional groups, and business units.
  • Encourage people to introduce their teammates to helpful people they know on other teams, in other functional groups, and in other business units. Reward this behavior.
  • Identify people who are bridges between diverse teams, functional groups, and business units and ask them for help in building informal networks of weak ties.
  • Include a directory of contacts within the broader organization in the team’s knowledge repository. Focus on the usefulness and diversity of these contacts, not the size of the directory.
  • Build strong relationships across teams and business units to facilitate the transfer of tacit knowledge.
  • Use these relationships to find resources such as experts, collaboration partners, customers, users, ideas, and technologies.
  • Identify collaboration opportunities outside your team’s own business unit.

Overcoming More Barriers to Collaboration in Part 2

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, in which I’ll cover the remaining five organizational, cultural, and interpersonal barriers to collaboration:

  1. A lack of alignment around goals
  2. Internal competitiveness
  3. Information hoarding
  4. Organizational silos
  5. Physical separation 


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Deutschendorf, Harvey. “5 Ways to Improve Your Listening Skills.” Fast Company, September 23, 2014. Retrieved October 8, 2017.

Edmondson, Amy C., and Kathryn S. Roloff. “Overcoming Barriers to Collaboration: Psychological Safety and Learning in Diverse Teams.” In Team Effectiveness in Complex Organizations: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives and Approaches. Eduardo Salas, Gerald F. Goodwin, and C. Shawn Burke, eds. New York: Routledge Psychology Press, Taylor & Francis Group, 2009. Retrieved October 8, 2017.

Hansen, Morten T. Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results. Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2009.

Lencioni, Patrick. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.

MindTools. “Active Listening: Hear What People Are Really Saying.” MindTools, undated. Retrieved October 8, 2017.

Mueller, Jennifer. Creative Change: Why We Resist It, How We Can Embrace It. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.

Sawyer, Keith. Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. New York: Basic Books, 2007.

Schilling, Dianne. “10 Steps to Effective Listening.” Forbes, November 9, 2012. Retrieved October 8, 2017.

SkillsYouNeed. “Active Listening.” SkillsYouNeed, undated. Retrieved October 8, 2017.

SkillsYouNeed. “Barriers to Effective Listening.” SkillsYouNeed, undated. Retrieved October 8, 2017.

Principal Consultant at Strategic UX

Founder, Publisher, and Editor in Chief of UXmatters

Silicon Valley, California, USA

Pabini Gabriel-PetitWith more than 20 years working in User Experience at companies such as Google, Cisco, WebEx, Apple, and many startups, Pabini now provides UX strategy and design consulting services through her Silicon Valley company, Strategic UX. Her past UX leadership roles include Head of UX for Sales & Marketing IT at Intel, Senior Director of UX and Design at Apttus, Principal UX Architect at BMC Software, VP of User Experience at scanR, and Manager of User Experience at WebEx. Pabini has led UX strategy, design, and user research for Web, mobile, and desktop applications for consumers, small businesses, and enterprises, in diverse product domains. Working collaboratively with business executives, multidisciplinary product teams, and UX teams, she has envisioned and realized holistic UX design solutions for innovative, award-winning products that delighted users, achieved success in the marketplace, and delivered business value. As a UX leader, she has facilitated conceptual modeling and ideation sessions; written user stories; prioritized product and usability requirements; established corporate design frameworks, standards, and guidelines; and integrated lean UX activities into agile development processes. Pabini is a strategic thinker, and the diversity of her experience enables her to synthesize innovative solutions for challenging strategy and design problems. She is passionate about creating great user experiences that meet users’ needs and get business results. A thought leader in the UX community, Pabini was a Founding Director of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA).  Read More

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