Dr. Heidi K. Gardner: How Can We Overcome Our Egos to Become More Effective Collaborators?
‘Perspectives’ is a joint project of The Beautiful Truth and Leaders on Purpose. During the 5th annual Leaders on Purpose CEO Summit this year, The Beautiful Truth conducted interviews with influential corporate leaders and thought leaders. The goal was to gain insight into their perspectives on purposeful business and answer the question: what actions should our businesses take in the current historical context?
Dr. Heidi K. Gardner is a distinguished fellow at Harvard Law School and author of Washington Post bestseller Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos and newly released Smarter Collaboration: A New Approach to Breaking Down Barriers and Transforming Work. She is faculty chair and instructor of multiple executive education programs at Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School.
Her research focuses on leadership and collaboration. Here, she crystallises what we need to do to work together more effectively.
“Why is it that vulnerability is so difficult for leaders? What are they trying to prove and to whom?”
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
What is smarter collaboration and why is it important?
While working at McKinsey, I wanted to understand why some teams are more effective than others. We could have two equally diverse and competent teams; one of them would come up with something that’s on fire – innovative, practical, exciting; the other one would come up with something that was solid, but ho-hum. I’ve been spending the last 20 years figuring out the difference between these two groups.
Our need for teamwork and collaboration has evolved and so has the way we engage with one another. So now, rather than looking at a defined team with clear boundaries – you’re a teammate and they’re not – we’re looking at a much more fluid and dynamic way of working. Smarter collaboration is about bringing together highly specialised experts to tackle complex problems by developing holistic solutions that none of them could have done on their own.
What are some barriers to collaborating effectively?
When we discuss collaboration, we’re talking about human beings – which means a lot of ego is involved. Smarter collaboration requires us to team up with others who have expertise different from our own, but that makes us vulnerable: we have to admit there are things we don’t know.
Maybe I’m an eternal optimist, but I believe that when we have purpose at the heart of what we’re doing, it allows us to transcend some of our individualistic tendencies. When we genuinely care about the outcome, we’re more willing to trust others and be vulnerable.
Once you have that big purpose in mind, you can dissect it to decide whose expertise, life experience, and culture will add something unique to create a more compelling and innovative outcome.
How can people take collaboration to the next level?
Different perspectives are absolutely crucial; we need to create a context where everyone at the table feels psychologically safe to contribute. It takes a willingness to put aside our assumptions and confront our biases.
One of the things that psychologists have known for decades is that when people are under pressure, their ability to think expansively is severely diminished. It’s ironic – just when you need innovation the most, it’s the hardest to accomplish. We need to be introspective: what are our natural tendencies? What is it that we do when we’re under pressure that’s helpful, and what’s not?
“When people are under pressure, their ability to think expansively diminishes radically. It’s ironic; just when you need innovation the most, it’s hardest to accomplish.”
Why is goal-setting so important?
Setting lofty goals shows people why collaboration is essential, and helps motivate them to seek out people with different kinds of knowledge to help them achieve those ambitions. One crucial tactic is setting interim milestones. Research suggests that the progress we make on a day-to-day basis is far more motivational than hitting a goal that’s way down the road.
It’s up to leaders. How do you think about and communicate what it will take to reach your goals? How do we compound that progress to reach bigger targets? Leaders at all levels need to stay focused on why we are working together, why we are taking these risks and ultimately what we can do together that’s far better than any of us could do on our own.
What will be the result if we learn to collaborate more effectively?
If we can truly work across geographies, political parties and different disciplines, there’s no stopping us. Not only can we clean up the messes that we have made, but we can ensure a better future for our planet.
We are standing in our own way right now. If we can put ego aside and equip leaders to think and act in these ways, we can accomplish anything we want.