Earlier this month, Elvis Costello played in Dublin, performing without the full line-up of the Attractions and accompanied only by his long-time collaborator Steve Nieve. After journeying together through 45 years of tour buses, dressing rooms, hotel lounges, flights, recording studios, and live performances, the seamless synergy between Elvis Costello and Steve Nieve is undeniable. Their collaboration and bond have evolved into an intuitive language, subtle to an outsider but vividly clear to them. The intuitive language shared by Costello and Nieve symbolises the essence of collaboration—a universal phenomenon that crosses various fields and industries.
Collaboration: the term is a buzzword in boardrooms, often discussed in strategy meetings and corporate corridors. Morten T. Hansen, in his pivotal book, ‘Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Build Common Ground, and Reap Big Results,’ explains that the core of collaboration isn’t about amassing tangible assets. Rather, it’s about unlocking value through shared knowledge and relationships.
If you’ve ever viewed collaboration as elusive, difficult to implement, or limited to a select few, it’s time to rethink that perspective. Drawing on insights from scholars like Robert Axelrod, we’re making the case that collaboration isn’t just an inherited trait like ‘DNA.’ It’s also influenced by factors such as leadership and vision, which can be actively nurtured to become a potent force for collective action within any organisation.
Collaboration in practice
Public opinion on collaboration varies. While some see it as vital to effective organisational practice, others dismiss it as mere managerial jargon. The truth lies somewhere in between; collaboration offers tangible benefits and value when practised effectively. Given the rapid changes in our world, the importance of collaboration has never been greater. With emerging nations reshaping the global economic landscape and partnerships becoming increasingly essential, is it now a non-negotiable asset? From the arts and sports to science and business, effective collaboration enriches our collective experiences and is indispensable for leadership. Symbiotic relationships like that between Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta in football or Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in basketball have redefined standards for teamwork. These duos show that collaboration magnifies individual brilliance to create game-changing moments. In facing global challenges like climate change, the need for collaboration extends beyond industries to nations and continents. Initiatives like the Paris Agreement represent concerted efforts to combat an existential threat, underscoring the power of collective action.
In science, the importance of collaboration is ever-present. The International Space Station (ISS) is a testament to what can be achieved through international teamwork, bringing diverse skill sets and perspectives together to reach a common goal. Historical collaborations like that between Albert Einstein and Marcel Grossmann laid the foundation for ground-breaking theories like general relativity.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, unprecedented levels of global scientific collaboration led to the rapid development and distribution of vaccines. This real-time, high-stakes cooperation among nations, scientists, and pharmaceutical companies demonstrated that extraordinary outcomes are possible when humanity unites for a common cause.
The business of collaboration
In the business world, partnerships have also yielded significant results. Procter & Gamble, which began as a small partnership, has grown into a global giant. The collaborative synergy between William Procter and James Gamble transformed a modest venture into an empire. Modern workspaces are designed better to facilitate such collaborative endeavours, but more can be done. As organisational psychologist Adam Grant proposes, people may work from home but come to the office to collaborate. Artificial intelligence is adding a new dimension to team collaboration, evolving from a tool for basic tasks to handling complex roles like data analysis. Integrating AI empowers teams to make agile decisions and foster a conducive, flexible work environment. In the age of remote work, tools like Slack and Zoom have become indispensable for team collaboration, breaking down geographical barriers and enabling real-time communication and project management.
Practical steps for effective collaboration
As the intricacies of collaboration unfurl, understanding its practical implementation becomes paramount. Begin with a shared vision, ensuring everyone recognizes the endgame. Assemble diverse teams, ensuring a mix of expertise and perspectives. Prioritize transparent communication, creating a culture where ideas flow freely. Regular check-ins are essential, not just to track progress but to celebrate milestones. Equip teams with the right tools and training, fostering an environment conducive to collaboration. And remember, genuine feedback, whether praise or constructive critique, is the cornerstone of continuous improvement.
Unpacking the potential of collaboration
Collaboration isn’t a one-size-fits-all endeavour; it’s a nuanced and intricate dance that varies depending on context. In contemporary business settings, traditional hierarchical frameworks make way for more decentralised, cross-functional operations. This shift calls for a managerial approach that goes beyond mere oversight to include motivation and influence. As evidenced by the rise of virtual teams, mastering the complexities of modern teamwork often determines organisational success or failure.
Within this complex landscape, the durability of collaborative relationships is critical. It isn’t just the responsibility of the individuals involved; it must be woven into the fabric of organisational practices. Emerging technologies like blockchain also illustrate the potential of decentralised, collaborative systems. With its network of nodes working together to validate transactions, this technology represents a ground-breaking form of collaborative interaction.
Social psychologists like Debra Mashek outline various levels of collaborative engagement, each requiring its own set of rules based on the degree of trust, commitment, and resource-sharing. Dr. Carol D. Goodheart further emphasises that effective collaboration can significantly amplify organisational resources, an aspect often overlooked due to inadequate training in collaborative practices.
The real challenge lies in integrating the value of collaboration into daily operations. Investments in cultural and behavioural initiatives often dissipate when confronted with the rigid processes of ‘business as usual.’ Existing behavioural assessment tools also fall short, lacking the specificity needed to capture the multifaceted nature of collaboration.
Moving forward, an integrative approach is essential—one that aligns cultural initiatives with business processes and enriches traditional assessments with collaboration-focused metrics. The benefits of collaboration are clear; we can’t afford to leave them to chance. Fostering a genuinely collaborative environment requires a thoughtful convergence of culture, process, and leadership.
Attributes for greater collaboration
Research has shown that the following attributes enable greater collaboration within an organisation:
• Strategically Minded: Individuals can see beyond their immediate roles and consider broader objectives. This fosters cooperative behaviour and long-term value.
• Strong Team Orientation: Crucial for effective collaboration. It enables individuals to focus on common goals, adapt to team dynamics, and foster an inclusive environment.
• Effective Communication: Vital for success, characterised by openness, two-way dialogue, and responsiveness.
• Openness to Sharing: Encompasses a willingness to discuss ideas, accept suggestions, and change one’s mind, thereby encouraging meaningful collaboration.
• Creativity and Innovation: Willingness to think outside the box and find intelligent solutions to complex problems.
• High Levels of Empathy: Demonstrated understanding of others’ perspectives and emotions, thereby enhancing teamwork and customer focus.
• Inspiring Leadership: Effective leaders focus on collaboration and people management, avoiding micromanagement and bossy attitudes.
Collaboration is far more than a corporate buzzword; it is a nuanced, multi-layered approach that fundamentally influences all sectors of human endeavour—from the arts and sciences to sports and business. We’ve seen how partnerships like Lennon and McCartney have become legendary in the arts, transforming the music landscape. In science, collaborations like the International Space Station embody the pinnacle of what international teamwork can achieve. In the business world, the symbiosis between William Procter and James Gamble shows how small partnerships can turn into global giants.
As the work landscape shifts, with Adam Grant suggesting the office as a ‘crucible’ for collaboration even in the age of remote work, it becomes evident that we need to understand the complexities and subtleties involved more deeply. Scholars like Debra Mashek and Carol D. Goodheart offer valuable insights into the transformative power of collaboration, urging us to see it not as an optional asset but as a vital force for societal advancement. And in facing global challenges, whether it’s climate change or the complexities of emerging technologies like blockchain, collaboration scales from the individual to the global level, making it a non-negotiable asset for collective progress.
By actively embracing and nurturing the diverse forms of collaborative interaction, we do more than enrich our individual lives; we catalyse collective progress, paving the way for unforeseen possibilities and ground-breaking innovations. This makes it imperative to appreciate the concept of collaboration and invest in creating a culture, adopting processes, and establishing leadership that intentionally fosters collaborative engagement.
As we look toward the future, the question is no longer whether collaboration is beneficial but how we can cultivate it to unlock its full potential. This calls for proactive measures from individuals and organisations to move from mere understanding to actively promoting a collaborative ethos. Our collective progress depends on it.
Axelrod, R. (1984). The Evolution of Cooperation. Basic Books.
Chakkol, M., Finne, M., & Johnson, M. (2017). Understanding the psychology of collaboration: What makes an effective collaborator. Institute for Collaborative Working: March.
Hansen, M. (2009). Collaboration: How leaders avoid the traps, build common ground, and reap big results. Harvard Business Press.
Lipnack, J., & Stamps, J. (2008). Virtual teams: People working across boundaries with technology (3rd ed.). John Wiley & Sons.
Mashek, D. (2016). Collaboration: It’s Not What You Think. Psychology Today. February, 26.
Clusters, as conceptualised by Michael Porter (1990), have been central in economic theory. Geographically concentrated interconnected companies within similar industries have spurred economic growth and driven innovation. Silicon Valley’s technology hub, Wall Street’s finance focus, and Milan’s fashion hotspot are just a few instances of this clustering phenomenon.
Although economic and geographical clustering offers intriguing insights, I’m particularly interested in applying this concept to the microcosm of individual organisations – their teams. Could the “cluster” effect potentially apply to the human aspects of businesses?
What is a team cluster?
Based on principles of organisational psychology, a “team cluster” is a group of people with unique strengths who work together to create an environment that fosters innovation and high performance, according to Sundstrom et al. (2000). This approach differs from the traditional “superstar” model, which relies on one exceptionally talented individual to drive success. Instead, it suggests that a team made up of consistently above-average members is more likely to achieve optimal performance.
The way a team works together is very important in this model (Forsyth, 2018). Adding a superstar could upset the balance of the team and cause conflicts or hard feelings. However, a team that is well-balanced will work well together and have better relationships, leading to better performance. The Galáctico project in Real Madrid which was cancelled in 2007, is an example of this (although there is a new one in development by all accounts).
The power of a strong team can be seen in historical examples, such as Walt Disney Studios’ ‘Nine Old Men’, a group of animators who worked together to create beloved films like ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ and ‘Bambi’. This shows how a team with a balance of talent can be more effective than relying on one exceptional individual.
According to a theory called social loafing (Latane et al., 1979), people often put in less effort when they are part of a group, especially if they think that someone else in the group is responsible for most of the success. However, having a well-balanced team ensures that every member’s input is valuable, which decreases the chances of social loafing and leads to better overall performance.
The ground-breaking development of penicillin by Howard Florey, Ernst Boris Chain, and their colleagues at Oxford University exemplifies the power of such a team cluster (Ligon, 2004). Each individual played a vital role in the process, validating the potency of a balanced, collective effort in accomplishing a shared goal.
Training and collaboration
Developing the skills and relationships of team members can strengthen the effectiveness of team clusters. This involves training and development to promote shared understanding, mutual respect, and collaboration within the team, as stated by Salas et al. in 2008. A prime example of this is the COVID-19 vaccine development teams, like the one behind the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, who utilised their diverse skills and knowledge to successfully develop a vaccine through collective effort and collaboration.
Team cluster dynamics
The success of the ENIAC team in history underscores the significance of diversity and equality in teams. The “ENIAC Girls,” a group of six female mathematicians who were among the earliest computer programmers, played a crucial role in the creation of ENIAC, one of the earliest general-purpose computers. This demonstrates the value of utilising various skills and viewpoints, as well as the power of inclusiveness in optimising team performance.
The concept of the team cluster model can be applied in different fields, including sports. However, the dynamics may differ due to the unique nature of athletic performance. Nevertheless, the idea remains valid that a team with a good balance of contributions from each member often performs better than a team focused on one superstar, as proven by Fransen et al. in 2015.
Leadership’s role in team clusters
Creating effective team clusters requires intentional development and management. Encouraging self-development and peer-to-peer learning can raise the team’s overall competency level (Decuyper et al., 2010). Additionally, it’s important to nurture an environment where team members feel valued and understand their contribution to the overall goal. Leadership plays a crucial role in creating a culture that values collaboration, continuous learning, and collective success over individual brilliance.
In conclusion, team clusters are effective because they bring together a diverse range of skills, encourage collaboration, and promote continuous learning and development. By combining these elements, organisations can use team clusters to improve innovation and performance. In short, the team cluster model shows that working together can achieve more than working alone.
Decuyper, S., Dochy, F., & Van den Bossche, P. (2010). Grasping the dynamic complexity of team learning: An integrative model for effective team learning in organisations. Educational Research Review, 5(2), 111-133.
Fransen, K., Vanbeselaere, N., De Cuyper, B., Vande Broek, G., & Boen, F. (2015). The myth of the team captain as principal leader: extending the athlete leadership classification within sport teams. Journal of sports sciences, 33(14), 1377-1387.
Forsyth, D. R. (2018). Group Dynamics. Cengage Learning.
Latane, B., Williams, K., & Harkins, S. (1979). Many Hands Make Light the Work: The Causes and Consequences of Social Loafing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(6), 822-832.
Ligon, B. L. (2004). Penicillin: Its Discovery and Early Development. Seminars in Pediatric Infectious Diseases, 15(1), 52-57.
Porter, M. E. (1990). The Competitive Advantage of Nations. Free Press.
Salas, E., Cooke, N. J., & Rosen, M. A. (2008). On teams, teamwork, and team performance: discoveries and developments. Human Factors, 50(3), 540-547.
Sundstrom, E., McIntyre, M., Halfhill, T., & Richards, H. (2000). Work Groups: From the Hawthorne Studies to Work Teams of the 1990s and Beyond. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 4(1), 44-67.
Innovation is everywhere. It always has been. From the discovery of fire through advances in weaponry, healthcare and industrialisation, humanity has always found a way to adapt to the latest grand alteration; the next big thing. Invariably, once something as profoundly groundbreaking as the aeroplane or the internet comes along, change is wrought. Old practices are overhauled, then quickly shunted into the annals of history to be either forgotten or roundly mocked – can you believe we used to…?
And yet, to trudge through the mastheads, web blurbs or corporate video montages of almost any organisation today is to see and hear the word innovation endlessly. It’s wielded freely and often vaguely, to the extent that its meaning is diluted if not lost entirely. You’d be forgiven for thinking, given its overwhelming prevalence, that innovation itself was a 21st century innovation. Some of the companies claiming to be innovators are indeed just that – Apple can justly lay claim to having changed the way the majority of people operate in their day-to-day lives. Others simply know how to cash in on a buzzword when they see it.
But what actually is innovation? What does it offer businesses? How should it be used? What are risks and tradeoffs of pursuing the oft-discussed “innovation mindset”, and can they be side-stepped?
What is innovation?
Innovation is a bit of a catch-all term, but generally it just means finding a better way of doing things. That doesn’t necessarily mean inventing something new, though that is of course included. Innovation is just as much about fostering improvements to existing processes and ideas as it is about designing some groundbreaking new product.
When Alexander Bell first communicated with someone on the other end of the phone line, that was an innovation. When industries moved in their droves from the traditional in-office 9-5 to a hybrid working system just a few years ago, that was an innovation too, albeit one forced by global circumstances. It can be too easy to believe (the self-promotion of self-proclaimed) innovators and think that innovation must be cut-throat: the death of the old way; the birth of the new. In practice, things are rarely so straightforward. Which is a helpful reminder of what innovation is not.
Innovation ≠ disruption
Innovation and disruption have come to be seen as one in the same. This is understandable as some innovations are disruptive. Naturally, the more disruptive the innovation is, the more coverage it will receive, thus developing an associative bond between the two in the mind of the public. Uber and Amazon would be prime examples of disruptive innovators. Almost overnight, industries that we took for granted were irrevocably changed. Many taxi drivers, as well as booksellers both commercial and independent, lost their livelihoods. Similarly streaming’s impact on the entertainment industry has seen a total upheaval in how multi-billion dollar organisations now operate, whether that was Netflix’s obliteration of Blockbuster or Napster and its contemporaries’ shake-up of the music industry that paved the way for Spotify’s ascendency.
But there exists a far more gentle (and far more prevalent) form of innovation; W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, authors of Beyond Disruption: Innovate and Achieve Growth Without Displacing Industries, Companies, or Jobs, call this “non-disruptive creation” .
Non-disruptive creation is defined as a means by which new industries, new jobs, and profitable growth come into being without destroying existing companies or jobs . The obvious benefit of such forms of innovation are that they can “foster economic growth in a way that enables business and society to thrive together” . Chan Kim and Mauborgne are swift to differentiate between this non-disruptive creation and disrupting, noting that, “Disruption imposes a clear trade-off between winners and losers…That’s because the leap in consumer surplus provided by the disrupter can nearly wipe out the existing industry and its incumbent players” .
Non-disruptive creation, on the other hand, “provides no evident losers and only minimal painful adjustment costs,” while having “a positive impact on growth and jobs” . They cite Kickstarter as a good example of non-disruptive creation. The users were able to fund projects that otherwise would have struggled to accumulate backing; they could choose which projects they wanted to give their money to, as well as how much and how often, and artists on the site were able to realise their dream projects. No livelihoods were displaced. Everyone emerged a winner.
Chan Kim and Mauborgne argue that there is an increased demand from the public for capitalism to give back to society, rather than simply chasing the profit-at-all-costs ideology first theorised by Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman . Non-disruptive creation, they say, is in-step with such demands.
Whether an innovation is disruptive or not, it is still at the mercy of social defence. For innovators, social defence is the great nemesis, stifling their dogged pursuit of progress at every turn. As a definition, social defence is the – quite natural, and often unconscious – attempt to preserve the more traditional aspects of an organisation . Essentially, the “legacy structures, strategies, or cultures that make leaders feel proud and their followers feel safe” .
To the innovator, such blockades to all things new and shiny can be sources of great frustration. They argue that change is on its way, if not already here, and that attempts to slow its approach are as futile as they are jurassic. But it’s easy to understand why legacy employees at a large and successful company would be reluctant to rock the boat. The old approach has carried them to such heights; it looks a dangerous game to turn around and bite the hand that has fed them so well. After all, new is not a synonym of better.
That said, change is inevitable, and there are plenty of examples of companies who fell by the wayside because they failed to see it coming, or outright ignored warnings it was on its way. Reactions of major industry players to large-scale innovations have been compared to that of grief, with denial and defensiveness featuring heavily .
The music industry’s reaction to the initial emergence of MP3 and streaming is a prime example. Unsure how to fold this game-changing new technology into its existing offer (or at least how to do so and still reap the major profits they were raking in at the time), they went on the offensive, suing the free streamers into oblivion. They won in court, but as Justin Timberlake’s smug grin tells you in The Social Network  (where he plays Napster founder Sean Parker), the major labels emerged from the affair as anything but winners. “You wanna buy a Tower Records, Eduardo?” Timberlake smirks, like the fourth horseman of the old industry’s apocalypse.
How should businesses approach innovation?
Writing in Harvard Business Review, Gianpiero Petriglieri, associate professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD, argues that, “Leadership, at its core, is an argument with tradition. As a leader, you are always relating to a tradition that you are trying to preserve, expand, or change. That means, as a priority, that you must care about the tradition. Or, more precisely, you must care about what the tradition is trying to accomplish” . This is where those desperate to innovate at all costs can go wrong. They see change itself as the destination, not the means by which they’re getting there.
Still, an openness to change is vital. This is at the core of the fabled “innovation mindset”. That mindset can be established in-house or it can be forced upon businesses by external circumstances. The Covid pandemic was a clear example of this. Workplace practices were altered almost overnight; overlong vaccination protocols were streamlined – only possible because the whole world was in step, a rare instance that likely won’t roll around again any time soon.
Susan Rienow, Country President of Pfizer UK, wrote as much in the New Statesman, saying of the incredible innovations and the speed with which they were introduced :
…these kinds of breakthroughs don’t happen by chance. It takes the right environment, support and conditions for science and innovation to thrive. It is not just about expertise; it’s about mind-set and how we come together in pursuit of a shared mission. This mission-led approach and entrepreneurial spirit, coupled with collective and powerful collaboration, helped us achieve what had previously been unthinkable. This shouldn’t begin and end with Covid-19.
Risk vs return
The key, as is often the case, is balance. Genuine openness to change paired with an understanding of what your business is and why – as well as what would happen to it were that to alter. And it’s not solely about whether the business itself is fine to change. Equally important are the circumstances around the business, and its users.
All innovations change the trade-off between risk and return, and “many of the risks associated with an innovation stem not from the innovation itself but from the infrastructure into which it is introduced” . What ardent innovators can miss is that the rate of innovation is often so high that it becomes counterintuitive to invoking systemic change – companies cannot restructure according to each new innovation because by the time they’ve done so the next innovation will have emerged to displace the one they’ve just changed to accommodate. Innovations can possess the most hurrysome of expiration dates – store in the fridge and use within 24hrs of opening, etc. – and so the urgency to adjust with haste feels palpable to the innovation driver. But if you were told the best way to store a bottle that’s soon to go off is to buy a new fridge, well, you can understand the reluctance. Especially when the next bottle is just a day away.
Which innovations are worth adopting or adapting for is a difficult call. Some will alter life as we know it forever; others will fade faster than last summer’s T-shirt tan. To an extent, it’s a gut call and a leap of faith. One that if you get right, can pay huge dividends. Approach with cautious openness, and do not fear the inevitable overhauls. Business, after all, is no more or less predictable or ephemeral than life itself.
 APA. Fincher, D. (2010). The Social Network. Columbia Pictures.
The campaign of SNP leadership hopeful Kate Forbes came off the rails in February when her views on marriage equality, steeped in her deep evangelical faith and considered antiquated by much of today’s society, led people to argue that she could not be elected to govern a country like Scotland, whose values are so starkly unaligned with her own.
Subsequent discussions around Forbes’ views and the effect they have had on her leadership bid have divided commentators. Some proclaim the backlash to be a form of religious intolerance, a further example of ‘cancel culture’ orchestrated by an overzealous woke mob, narrowing the ideological field and denying a plurality of thought in public life. Others have simply assessed that Forbes is entitled to her views but that, in a democratic system, possessing views that are plainly at odds with the majority of her would-be constituents was always likely to have a negative political impact – that she is entitled to her faith, just as those who disagree with her are entitled to lend their votes elsewhere.
Regardless of where you stand, the issue raises interesting questions around the role of diversity of thought in leadership, whether ideological clashes in the workplace are possible, and whether they can potentially even be beneficial.
Diversity in the workplace
“The chains of habits are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.” This saying – attributed by some to Samuel Johnson, by others to Bertrand Russell – is apt when it comes to diversity in the workplace. Far too late in the day, employers realised that their workforces were stiflingly homogenous, most especially when it came to race and gender. Recent cultural reckonings have set the wheels in motion for change in that regard, with a newfound urgency placed on ensuring workplaces represent a wider spectrum of society. The benefits of those changes on a social level are obvious. But the benefits to businesses are too.
Research shows that companies with diversity outperform the competition by 35% and are 70% more likely to capture new markets . While diverse teams are 87% better at making decisions , and diverse management teams lead to 19% higher revenue.  In other words, if you want a more successful business, you want a more diverse team.
Business leaders need to possess cultural competence to ensure they’re managing these diverse teams correctly. Cultural competence is defined as “the ability to understand, appreciate, and interact with people from cultures or belief systems different from one’s own.”  People of different cultures and backgrounds – be they ethnic, religious, economic, gender or sexuality based differences – naturally bring their life experience to their role, and offer a distinct viewpoint characterised by that experience.
A culturally competent leader knows how to balance those wide-ranging viewpoints and use them to drive innovation, productivity and engagement. But while having differing perspectives offers clear benefits in terms of a widening the thought pool, it also has the potential to engineer greater levels of conflict, with these sometimes clashing opinions or ideologies going head to head. How can businesses ensure (sometimes vehement) differences of opinion lead to innovation, not ruptures?
The role of conflict in the workplace
A lot of people are uncomfortable with conflict, especially in the workplace. They don’t want to come across as aggressive or obstinate, or be labelled with that most unshakeable of reputations: “difficult”. But that relationship to conflict is flawed, built on the premise that conflict must always be in some way negative, that there must be a winner and a loser, and you don’t want to be the latter. But conflict that stems from a positive place and is well managed offers far more advantages than disadvantages.
Creative friction and stress-testing ideas results in superior quality output. As Liane Davey, author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done notes, “Conflict allows the team to come to terms with difficult situations, to synthesize diverse perspectives, and to make sure solutions are well thought-out.” Adding, “Conflict is uncomfortable, but it is the source of true innovation, and also a critical process in identifying and mitigating risks.” 
The way conflict is handled is obviously crucial to how your team functions. If your colleagues are obstinate, only looking to put their own point across and battling for it to win as a sign of their corporate supremacy, you’re doomed. But if everyone around the table is willing to listen to other ideas, willing to challenge them and willing to be challenged in turn, then not only will the standard of ideas improve, as it’s being assessed from a wider variety of angles and facing up to more prominent scrutiny, but relationships amongst the team will improve too. Instil a culture where colleagues can disagree in the boardroom but know that each of their ideas are being heard and that they can all head out for drinks later with no hard feelings, and there’s no telling how vast the improvements in your employees’ performance and mood will be.
Diversity of ideas
As well as the obvious need for diversity in more overt and definable areas like race and gender, it’s also important to employ a diverse spectrum of ideas. A racially diverse company made up of entirely the same cultural or political leanings can lead to a homogeneity of thought that proves restrictive. The need to employ workers whose views oppose our own can be an uncomfortable idea, as we tend to feel more at ease around like-minded personnel. But as Dr. Katherine Phillips notes in UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine, “When disagreement comes from a socially different person, we are prompted to work harder. Diversity jolts us into cognitive action in ways that homogeneity simply does not.” Research shows that homogenous groups are more confident in their performance, but that diverse groups are more successful in completing tasks. 
Ensuring a business contains diversity of thought falls on the boss’ shoulders. As a paper exploring ways of harnessing plurality of thought in the digital age notes, “In a boss/subordinate culture, toeing the boss’s line is a given, and alignment of thought is subtly encouraged and rewarded.” The danger is that managers tend to prefer ideas that echo their own. A suggested solution for this is to – on top of ensuring your team has a plurality of thought, including potential contrarians – use what engineers call the failure mode effects analysis (FMEA). FMEA works by identifying and exploring the potential ways a new idea or system may fail, rather than purely assessing its positives. This can go against our natural instincts, especially if it’s an idea we’re passionate about, but forcing ourselves and those around us to search for the negatives in even our best ideas is a useful tool to ensure the idea stands up to scrutiny, as well as helping to normalise the practice of challenging all ideas on a meritocratic basis. Research has found that a strong, homogeneous culture can stifle natural cognitive diversity due to the pressure to conform.  A good manager will foster an environment where all thoughts – including and especially ones diametrically opposed to their own – are given a chance to be heard.
Diverse workplaces have greater levels of success because they produce a greater plurality of thought. A company culture that encourages employees to challenge ideas in a healthy and constructive way – and provides a platform for a whole spectrum of viewpoints – allows for enhanced creativity and innovation. It’s the right thing to do from an equality standpoint, it’s best for business, and it helps engender employees with a healthier relationship to conflict.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at one of the most commonly used motivation theories in the workplace and explore how self-determination can be balanced with autonomy and alignment to organisational strategy.
Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is a framework for understanding the factors that promote or undermine intrinsic motivation, which refers to doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable rather than because of external rewards or pressure.
According to SDT, three basic psychological needs must be satisfied to foster intrinsic motivation: autonomy (having control over one’s own actions), competence (feeling capable and effective), and relatedness (feeling connected to others) (Ryan & Deci, 2020). When these needs are met, people are more likely to feel intrinsically motivated and engaged in their work.
In practice, employers can apply SDT principles by providing employees with opportunities to make choices, express creativity, and take on meaningful projects that align with their interests and values (autonomy); by offering training and support to help employees develop their skills and expertise (competence); and by fostering a sense of community and teamwork, and providing regular feedback and recognition (relatedness) (Deci et al., 2017).
Autonomy vs alignment
While some may wonder how to balance autonomy and alignment to overall strategy, it’s important to understand that autonomy and alignment are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they can complement each other and enhance employee motivation, job satisfaction, and organisational performance.
To achieve this balance, employers can provide employees with a clear understanding of how their work contributes to the organisation’s overall strategy. When employees understand how their work fits into the big picture, they are more likely to feel a sense of purpose and alignment and can make informed choices about how to approach their work in a way that supports the overall goals of the organisation.
At the same time, employers can provide employees with a degree of autonomy in how they approach their work. This can be achieved by giving them the freedom to make decisions about how to carry out their tasks, providing opportunities for them to take on projects that align with their interests and skills, and empowering them to innovate and generate new ideas.
Here are some practical tips for balancing autonomy and alignment in the workplace:
- Clarify the overall strategy: Ensure that employees understand the organisation’s overall strategy and how their work contributes to it. This can be achieved through regular communication, setting clear goals and expectations, and providing context and feedback on how their work impacts the organisation.
- Provide autonomy within parameters: Provide employees with a degree of autonomy in how they approach their work while ensuring they understand their role’s parameters and expectations. This can be achieved through clearly defining job responsibilities and expectations and providing opportunities for employees to make decisions within their roles.
- Foster a culture of innovation: Encourage employees to generate new ideas and take calculated risks to support the organisation’s overall strategy. This can be achieved through providing resources and support for innovation, recognising and rewarding creative thinking, and creating a safe and supportive environment for employees to take risks.
- Empower employees to make choices: Provide employees with opportunities to make choices about their work, such as setting their own goals, determining their own work schedules, and selecting projects that align with their interests and skills. This can help to foster a sense of ownership and accountability for their work.
In summary, combining autonomy and alignment with overall strategy is essential for creating a motivated and engaged workforce. By providing employees with a clear understanding of the overall strategy and the autonomy to make decisions within their role, organisations can create a culture of innovation and creativity that supports both individual and organisational goals.
Deci, E. L., Olafsen, A. H., & Ryan, R. M. (2017). Self-determination theory in work organizations: The state of a science. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 4, 19-43. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-032516-113108
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2020). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation from a self-determination theory perspective: Definitions, theory, practices, and future directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 61, 101860. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2020.101860
When asked how he went bankrupt, a character in Ernest Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises responds, “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” This description encapsulates so many of the changes that emerged as a result of the pandemic, most especially within the workplace. Plenty of the shifts we saw to working practices—such as introducing some form of home or hybrid working as standard—have already become accepted1 as part of the much-touted “new normal”. Others are still evolving, not least when it comes to the relationship between businesses and their employees’ health and wellbeing. One practice that has emerged as potentially pivotal in bridging the gap between personal welfare and workplace performance is that of mindfulness.
The Oxford Mindfulness Center2 defines mindfulness as “moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience, without judgment.” Dan Harris, author of 10 Percent Happier3, describes it even more plainly. “I think of mindfulness as the ability not to be yanked around by your own emotions”. Whatever definition you use, the consensus is that mindfulness offers an array of benefits on a personal and professional level. Which is why it’s no wonder business innovators—some before the pandemic, many after— have chosen to bring it into the workplace.
A 2019 survey by LinkedIn4 found that nearly half of workers feel stress in their jobs, with 70% of them feeling it as a result of their workload and their work-life balance. Meanwhile Gallup5 found that 23% of employees feel burnout at work very often or always, and a further 44% reported feeling it sometimes. The fact that these findings are from before the pandemic makes clear that businesses had been dancing on cracks for a long time before the ultimate disaster struck, and that the system (or at least a stark number of the employees within it) were teetering on the brink. To call the pandemic the straw that broke the camel’s back would be to minimize its devastation. But let’s face it, the camel was staggering and stumbling for a long while before whispers started emerging from Wuhan.
Some businesses could see that. It’s why many of the leading corporate innovators had been incrementally introducing mindfulness techniques to their work environment through the late 2000s and 2010s6. Apple, Google, Twitter, and a whole host of other Silicon Valley movers and shakers were championing everything from meditation rooms to in-office yoga and mindfulness classes through mindful lunches. That was Hemmingway’s gradually. Then, in March 2020, came the suddenly. Worker welfare became unignorable. Mindfulness emerged as a clear solution.
Mindfulness productivity gains and profit
Reducing burnout and caring for worker well-being are some of the benefits mindfulness offers businesses. But to put the major tech players’ adoption of such techniques down purely to concern for their personnel may be to give them undeserved credit. While worker welfare likely did factor into their reasoning, they were no doubt also influenced by the numbers surrounding mindfulness’ productivity gains.
Aetna, a US health insurer that trained 13,000 employees in mindfulness practices, estimated an annual productivity improvement of around $3,000 per employee, as well as a reported reduction in stress levels of 28%7. Meanwhile SAP, a leading German software company, saw a 200%8 return on investment, based on data from a survey undertaken with the help of 650 SAP employees who underwent mindfulness training through the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute9 (SIYLI). Awareness around well-being and mental health has increased in prominence across society as a whole and the business world is no different, but it would be naïve to pretend the bottom-line numbers weren’t a major contributory factor—if not the primary one— in mindfulness’ corporate ascendency.
Of course, to give Silicon Valley credit for the benefits of mindfulness would be myopic in the extreme. These ideas are of an Eastern origin and have been around for millennia. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of MBSR10 (mindfulness-based stress reduction), is often attributed with bringing mindfulness techniques westwards in the 1970s. Though it’s the advent of more modern technology—best exemplified by the then-unimaginable convenience of yoga and meditation apps— that has contributed significantly to the practice’s meteoric rise.
Spirituality integrates with business
While it may be tempting to presume that utilising these grand spiritual ideas for corporate agendas was a result of this move westwards, instigated by the monetise-at-all-costs instincts of Mega Capitalism, that assumption would be wrong. East Asian corporations such as Panasonic and Toyota have long been taking advantage of ancient teachings in a corporate context11. In fact, “zen”, a widely recognised if less widely understood concept relating to (and deriving from the Sanskrit translation of) meditation, is the foundation of the term “kaizen”.
Kaizen12 is a commonplace piece of business terminology in Japan, meaning change for the better or continuous improvement. It involves making the work environment more efficient and effective by creating a team atmosphere, improving everyday procedures, ensuring employee engagement, and making a job more fulfilling, less tiring, and safer. Its prevalence demonstrates that the marriage between mindfulness and corporate practice is no recent (or exclusively western) thing.
When looking at the benefits mindfulness offers, it’s easy to see why it’s an appealing prospect to all parties, east and west. Mindfulness has been found to help reduce emotional exhaustion13, to help foster compassion and empathy14, to improve decision making15, to reduce aggression16, to generate greater attention and focus17, to promote divergent thinking18, to reduce stress, and to improve short term memory19. It is a seemingly endless list of benefits, each impacting instrumental parts of our day-to-day life, personal and professional. What’s more, research20 shows that only short mindfulness sessions are necessary to achieve such results, rather than any dramatic lifestyle overhaul. A matter of minutes each day is enough. It’s no wonder businesses see it as an easy win. Even the US army is using mindfulness21 training to help soldiers better prepare for and deal with stress, before and after deployment.
How mindfulness works and how it impacts—and potentially alters—our brain has unsurprisingly been the intrigue of scientists and academics the world over. In their book Altered Traits22, Daniel Goleman, a Harvard psychologist, and Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that mindfulness practices such as breathing meditation are associated with decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, the region of the brain that initiates a response to stress. Researchers at the University of the Sunshine Coast23 in Australia found that mindfulness training increased the efficiency of brain pathways that process information coming in from the senses. In other words, participants in their study were found to literally see information more accurately24. The idea that mindfulness can genuinely re-wire our brains continues to enthral, and the evidence is mounting.
Scott Shute25, former Head of Mindfulness and Compassion at LinkedIn, author of The Full Body Yes: Change Your Work and Your World from the Inside Out, and upcoming guest on The 1% Podcast26, wants to mainstream mindfulness—in the workplace and beyond. Scott says that we should treat mindfulness in the same way we trat our physical health. “Fifty years ago, physical exercise was a strange thing. Now, every company feels good if they can provide gyms at work.”27 His argument is that in the same way we make time to exercise or go out of our way to eat nutritiously, we should also make the effort to strengthen our minds.
Considering the wide-scale proven benefits, the relatively little effort needed to achieve them, and the ubiquity of mindfulness apps28 offering free trials for curious parties, now feels as good a time as ever to start your mindfulness journey. One that will likely provoke change in two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.
More on burnout
- “The cultural obsession with productivity has led to an epidemic of burnout and stress in the workplace, and it’s impacting quality of life as well as businesses.” (Read more)
- “Reducing burnout and caring for worker well-being are some of the benefits mindfulness offers businesses” (Read more)
More on mindfulness
- “Mindfulness and meditation can help with stress and the ability to remain calm under pressure. Prioritising mental health is equally important as physical health and the items on a to-do list. Goals are important, but they also need to be sustainable.” (Read more)
- “Studies have shown that practising mindfulness and meditation can help with depression, chronic pain, anxiety, and a variety of other mental and physical conditions.” (Read more)