Why Collaboration Works – it’s not just sharing information

What else is at work when we really collaborate? There is some biology involved that helps collaborative teams excel.

Teamwork 101 tells us that collaboration works.  We get a bunch of ideas from a bunch of diverse people and, because of this, we get better ideas.  Different perspectives, education levels, cultures and work histories go into the problem-solving melting pot and we get great solutions.  But is the success of collaboration really just about sharing information and knowledge?  Definitely not.


There are a few others things at work in our physiology that help us to excel as a team when we engage in real collaboration. 


Dopamine, ideas and the social environment

For real collaboration to take place (and not just the ‘justifying-my-position’ variety of information sharing), there needs to be a high level of trust and a safe social environment. 


As it turns out, this social environment provides us with a dopamine surge as the body and brain process a feeling of security.  This is evident when we see that people in teams experience more pleasure and less pain than those working alone.  But dopamine also causes an up-shift in attention, problem-solving and salience (the ability to identify the most relevant pieces of information).  Could it be that the dopamine hit helps to actually make the information sharing more effective?

A Gallup poll found that organisations that have more water-cooler conversations increased productivity dramatically.  Surely these interactions don’t represent purpose-built collaboration sessions but are more reflective of a safe and trusting social environment.

Oxytocin, trust, and more ideas

The other thing that happens physiologically when we engage in trusting relationships with others is that the chemical oxytocin is produced and sent through our systems (our biological systems, not IT systems). 

What is the result of this?  Well, amongst other things, oxytocin is responsible for increasing empathy and decreasing risk-aversion with those people for whom we have the connection.  Might this mean that in this sort of environment that we are more open to other people’s ideas, less likely to be guarded and more likely to ‘have a go’? 

The research suggests that it does.  A single shot of oxytocin given to people during interactions showed exactly that they had more open conversations and were willing to take more risks.

Innovative and collaborative teams do more than just share information.  The environment that they create causes some undeniable biological reactions, which ensure that the information is treated in the best possible way.  The competitive advantage might not be the information that is shared, but the social environment in which it is incubated.

** Tony Wilson is a Workplace Performance Expert. His insights into performance science and its application in the workplace will make you re-think the way that you approach leadership, culture change, high performance, and productivity. Tony has an MBA and a BSc majoring in physiology and delivers workshops and keynote presentations around the globe.

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