September 2015
Issue Map
The Public Manager

When Team Collaboration Isnt Enough

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Being able to work and learn collaboratively will help a team achieve its mission.

Much has been written about teamwork over the years, all with the most noble of intentions. Applying those concepts in the complex world of the public manager isn't easy. What's more, leadership experts have focused heavily on the concept of collaboration among team members.

But is accomplishing the team's goal and achieving mission enough to signal success? Not likely. While the successful completion of a task is admirable, it may not lay the groundwork for future success. What if teams were able to not only work collaboratively, but learn collaboratively as well?

To be sure, this isn't a new idea. But it's often overlooked by leaders in their haste to score the quick win. Consider these questions to evaluate whether your team is fostering a collaborative working and learning environment.

Is everyone on the team there for the same reason? Common mission and values drive organizational and team success. A lack of common mission is often the reason for failure. The pressure to look out for one's self, or one's department, is a strong one. This breeds damaging doubt among team members. Once the dark cloud of mistrust appears, it's very difficult to wipe away.

What is the nature of the team discussion? Bickering? One-upping? Grandstanding? Does the team atmosphere encourage reflective questions and learning? How many times during a team meeting do members make statements instead of asking questions? Are meetings gripe-sessions mired in complaints about why people were assigned to the team in the first place?

Does the team focus only on the negative? What is the underlying spirit of the team? Positive vibes create resonance among team members. These neurologically valid phenomena tend to fuel creativity and open discussion. These positive feelings build a constructive and upbeat atmosphere where success thrives.

How does the team deal with the elephants? Every team, every organization, and almost every situation has its share of elephants in the room that go undiscussed. They reveal themselves through knowing glances, stated and unstated viewpoints, and body language. Does the team environment allow the team to recognize and thoroughly vet these elephants? Or do the elephants sit silently in the corner?


Does the team take personal responsibility for meeting preparation? Personal responsibility is important, but collective responsibility is much better. Is there an environment where team members hold each other responsible for preparation? Having ground rules for team participation creates a neutral third party that holds team members accountable for behavior before, during, and after meetings.

How does the team handle conflict? Public managers are notoriously passionate—and confident! During team meetings, however, this confidence can manifest itself in the form of closed minds, quick solutions, and an unwillingness to discuss other viewpoints. Conflict is not inherently bad; not taking advantage of what conflict has to offer the team or mission is bad.

Does the team follow through? Teamwork need not end when the meeting is over. A synergistic dynamic may very well carry over into other parts of the organization sparking interest and curiosity in what the team is doing. Effective teams stay active after meetings to ensure long-term success.

Is the team leader willing to lead? True leadership is about supporting others. Does the team leader take responsibility for being a steward for the team? Does the team leader view other members' time as valuable or as a path to his or her own validation? Having a leader who respects the team, and is willing to defend them to higher-ups, gives the team a powerful sense of efficacy that may lead to real success.

Public managers are well advised to take a look at their teams and assess where they are in their efforts to build a collaborative learning environment. By addressing these questions, teams stand the best chance of creating environments where organizational learning is embraced and long-term benefits are realized.

About the Author

Patrick Malone is director of Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University in Washington, D.C. He is a frequent guest lecturer on leadership and organizational dynamics and has extensive experience working with government leaders. Patrick’s research, teaching, and scholarship include work in public sector leadership, executive problem solving, organizational analysis, ethics, and public administration and policy. He is a retired navy captain, having spent 22 years in a number of senior leadership and policy roles.

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