Mastering the Art of Collaboration

Published: Tues., Oct. 20, 2015 .

Bar chart showing percentage of employers seeking employee attributes. Ability to work in a team is judged of equal importance to leadership, with nearly 80% of employers seeking these employee attributes. Other listed attributes: problem-solving skills (70%), verbal communication skills (67%), interpersonal skills (61%), entrepreneurial skills (25%), and creativity (18%).
The ability to work in a team is highly valued in many workplaces.
Source: Job Outlook 2015: Nat'l Assn. of Colleges & Employers (NACE)

"Collaborative skills" are the top of the wish list for employers in 2015. Collaborative skills aren’t just for the job market, though. Graduate students collaborate, both formally and informally, to complete coursework and work in the discipline: from preparing for exams with colleagues to co-authoring a research paper.

Good collaborative skills matter: one team member’s good work encourages the other members to be more engaged in the task, too. The synergy created in a good team enables all members to work together more effectively than if individuals completed the task alone.

To create an effective work environment, you need good collaboration skills. Here we’ll identify those skills and outline how to run a group effectively. 

Build and Maintain Working Relationships

Acknowledge others’ ideas. Show that you’ve heard ideas; don't ignore ideas you think are bad or dismiss them because you think they won't work. While every idea won’t be great, different ideas and perspectives almost always lead to the discovery of the best idea or most innovative approach.
To get all teammates to speak up, acknowledge all ideas without passing judgement. Then, after brainstorming, you can address the positives and negatives of each idea—and arrive at consensus about the approach or the solution you’ll use.

Be generous with praise. When you see others’ good work, be forthcoming with praise. The old saying, "You get more flies with honey than vinegar" means that people respond best to praise. By recognizing good work or ideas, you’re encouraging the rest of the team to do good work.

Embrace conflict. While we may be inclined to compromise in order to maintain group harmony, studies show that some conflict helps build trust among group members. When team members are honest about their opinions or feelings, conflict may arise. But when groups address this conflict openly, the group can then find ways to effectively overcome differences or compromise when necessary. As a result, there’s less passive-aggressive behavior. Members are also more likely to speak up when they disagree. In these cases, conflict can lead to better outcomes.

  • Learn to disagree. Part of working in a group means standing up for your ideas—and saying "no" to ideas that you don’t think will work. While you may be inclined to stay quiet when everyone else in the group reaches consensus, it’s important that you speak up if you see how the idea won’t work. Perhaps the group will counter your idea or they may reevaluate their original idea in light of your feedback.
  • Learn to accept “no.” Sometimes your ideas will be rejected by teammates. Recognize they’re rejecting the idea, not you as a person or your values and beliefs. And don’t let one “no” keep you from contributing in the future—the group’s effectiveness depends on your input and engagement!
close-up of two goats butting heads (embrace the conflict)
Address conflict openly to find ways to overcome differences.
Image licensed CC BY-SA 2.0

Recognize your own—and others’—feelings. When you speak, focus on how you feel (and not how the other person makes you feel), using “I” statements. Because it doesn’t single out another person or place blame, “I feel unappreciated when I share an idea and it’s not acknowledged” is much easier for a colleague to respond to than “Why don’t you listen to me?” Stating how an action makes you feel enables the other person to respond to your statement without feeling attacked and change their behavior.

Give and receive constructive feedback. When giving feedback, focus on the other person’s skills and contributions using the "sandwich" method. Emphasize the positive first, then find a constructive way to address any development areas, and finish up with a positive. For example, if the team member responsible for putting together slides made a number of typos and the slides weren’t well formatted, you’d want to find something positive about the slides, then talk about how the slides can be improved: “Thanks for your work on the research presentation. The figures are well-done and Figure 3 is especially effective. I saw several typos we'll need to fix, and we should expand the second discussion slide before we present, but I appreciate your effort to make the presentation so cohesive overall."

…working together to complete a task results in a better product that incorporates more innovative solutions.

Completing the task

Arrive at consensus. Make a plan before you start work—and make sure everyone’s on the same page. Beginning a task without first checking for consensus means your work may not contribute to the overall group goal, and your work will have been in vain. A written contract can be an effective tool, but you don't need to hire an attorney to draw one up; an email to the working group that states expected outcomes and makes work assignments is usually enough.
Begin with a conversation about individual roles and responsibilities, and how they contribute to a goal you all agree on. Before you begin working on a paper for publication, talk about authorship. Discuss how the authors will be listed, and what each author’s contribution will be. Write down what was decided and send it to the entire group.

See where the task can be split—or where collaboration is best. When a team member moves forward with an idea, empower your colleagues by offering to help where appropriate or simply let them know you're available to help. You may find your team can complete a project by dividing the labor, but working together to complete a task results in a better product that incorporates more innovative solutions.

Check in regularly. Update your team on your progress, not just when you’ve completed a task. Regular updates allow you to ask for help or make recommendations about how a task can be improved. For example, when you write a paper, think about how much better that paper is when you get help from your colleagues along the way. Your colleagues can give their perspective on where an idea needs to be developed more, or where you can omit things that detract from the overall impact of your work.


Collaborative work takes a little work and planning to complete effectively. That extra effort at the beginning pays off many times over, however. Work completed in a group benefits from the various team members' perspectives, where the completed project is better than what any individual could have completed on his or her own.

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