Enough with teams; you need colleagues!

Have you gotten tired of the words team and teamwork?

These are two of the most used and abused words in the corporate world.  We often have only a vague idea what people mean when they say team.  The term is used to describe project teams, work groups, divisions and even whole companies.  We often use the word team to describe a group of people who we think should  work together even if the people themselves don’t see the point. Teamwork is another murky term. There are lots of articles and training programs on what makes great teamwork; however, since context is king, it is pretty hard to nail down exactly what the elements of great teamwork are. In the real world it often feels like people use the word teamwork to describe “something others should do to make work easier for me.”

Since we all realize that it is difficult to accomplish much without the help of others, our interest in teams and teamwork is understandable. However, there is another word that describes something more fundamental than teams or teamwork: collegiality.

Collegiality is a sense of affinity and mutual support shared among peers. 

In modern organizations, while people often share tasks or work in interdependent or overlapping work flows, there are also many situations in which they work relatively independently. In these situations, people don’t need a team to help them do their actual work, but they still need other people to help them be as effective as possible. They need people to bounce ideas around with, help them select the right goals, work through options and figure out how to execute them.  They need access to ideas, feedback and experience, even if they don’t need someone to actually do those tasks.

In a collegial workplace, people notice that the human beings around them are surprisingly smart. 

They realize that each of their colleagues is a treasure trove of unique stories and experiences, and that many of those stories contain elements that are relevant to what everyone else is doing. In a collegial workplace, people save time and speed up innovation by picking the brains of their colleagues, then adapting what they hear to fit the challenge they are working on today. Through these informal exchanges the organization becomes more flexible, responsive, intelligent and aligned.

Without collegiality, individual accountability and connectivity are less magical.

In the field of organization studies, the synergy of collaboration is something of a holy grail. Millions have been invested in connectivity and management systems to realize that synergy.  Unfortunately, though enhanced connectivity only works if people see a reason to connect. Likewise, accountability can actually undermine collaboration synergy by linking rewards to individual performance without sufficient connection to group context.  Attempts to impose collaboration from above somehow seem to miss the mark and they may even stifle the sort of natural collaboration that occurs serendipitously in a collegial environment.  The key seems to be to find a way to trigger organic collaboration from below.

ideapractice initiatives are a great way to grow collegial relationships.

ideapractice initiatives are one way to promote collegiality even in a workplace designed for isolation. ideapractice drives learning by creating space for people to explore problems and possibilities, define gaps, plan experiments, share experiences, and reflect on impact. Throughout the process, they also create connections with their peers. This often results in a shared sense of purpose that is easily transferred back to the workplace.

During a reflection dialog at the close of an ideapractice initiative I facilitated some years ago, several participants noted that although they had been working together for nearly 10 years, this was the first time they had actually spent any time talking with each other.  They had been sitting less than five meters away from each other, but they had fallen into the habit of communicating exclusively by email and text and their communication had become very transactional.  When I asked them why, they said that communicating by email created clear accountability by leaving a “paper trail” that could be tracked when things got confusing.  It struck me that the kind of accountability they were talking about was probably not the kind of accountability that Drucker had in mind when he promoted the idea of management by objectives.

Through ideapractice, people discover a different kind of accountability. As they explore, plan, act and reflect with their peers, they start to feel an accountability to have something useful to share the next time they meet. One participant said that he now realized that the people he worked with were not only interesting, but also full of great ideas that he could adapt to his own challenges. Now when he got stuck, he could just call up one of his colleagues and talk about it over a cup of coffee or on a short walk.

Colleagues can help each other reach the destination when a team might just get lost in the storm.

After many years working in isolation, they had discovered benefits of collegiality.  They were not going to stop using technology and most of their work still consisted of individual accountabilities. What was different was that they were now connected to their colleagues, so they were no longer working in isolation.  Collegiality had become the glue that held all the individuals and their accountabilities in alignment.  They discovered that when they were trying to get something done quickly, investing some of the time in a quick chat with a colleague often enabled them get better results faster than if they had just pushed forward on their own. Connecting with their colleagues enabled them to convert their ideas into practices, leading to better experiences and better results.


“Book Review:  Exploring the Biology of Friendship” by Lydia Denworth, Review by Elizabeth Svaboda featured on undark.org Feb 7, 2020

For an exploration of loneliness, social isolation, their impacts and what to do bout them, see:https://freakonomics.com/podcast/loneliness/

© Dana Cogan 2008 and 2018-2020, all rights reserved.

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