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10 insights on building a culture of collaboration by Prof. Sebastien Brion

AE Team | October 10, 2018

For the latest installment of the Leaders Connect series, the Aboitiz Group invited Sebastien Brion, Associate Professor of Managing People in Organizations at IESE Business School in Barcelona, to talk about how leaders can best create an environment where collaboration thrives. Here are 10 key takeaways from the discussion:

1. Power Distance: The degree to which less powerful members of institutions and organizations accept that power is distributed unequally. Often, this is the underlying issue behind the following cases:

• Collaboration is stunted when we try to communicate but someone talks over us

• Those with greater influence are not open enough to listening

• When you put people under pressure, they will tell you what you want to hear

2. Earned Dogmatism Effect: People with more experience tend to have a more close-minded style; we become used to seeing the world in one way and we fail to adjust our perspective when the situation changes

• The more homogenous a committee, the more it will fail as a team when there are changes in the environment.

• This is because we’ve learned to do one thing and just keep doing it; we fail to see changes in the environment.

3. Collaboration can be obstructed by seniority of experience because:

1) We don’t listen as much
2) We may put ourselves in positions in which people are unlikely to speak up
3) We stifle upward communication
4) We may be less open-minded

4. In the Philippines, there is a tension when taking in multiple points of view, i.e. “utang na loob” (sense of gratitude/debt) and “pakikisama” affect willingness to speak up.

But it is a situation present around the globe, across multiple cultures. What some companies do to achieve the balance between being collaborative and being directed is the flattening of hierarchies. This doesn’t always work in all contexts: Google is a hierarchical company and, a few years ago, experimented with removing their managers and hierarchies and failed – engineers have said they actually need managers and they serve a purpose.

5. Equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking: Giving everybody an equal amount of speaking time;  research shows that the most effective teams were run by managers who let everyone in their team speak an equivalent amount of time in team meetings

• Independent of individual backgrounds and skills, the teams that do the best are the ones in which they have an equality in terms of speaking time

• The typical team dynamic is 20% of people talk 80% of the time

• When you oblige everyone to speak, over a long-term perspective, everybody becomes engaged

6. Psychological safety: The extent to which the team views the social climate as conducive to interpersonal risk, resulting in an environment in which the team members can engage with the team without feeling insecure or embarrassed – these teams function more effectively

• Given the tendency of 1 or 2 people to dominate teams, Google enforced the notion that managers are responsible for the process of the way the team engages

• You need not be the smartest, most intellectual. Instead, you need to be the person who creates a process within team meetings in which people communicate effectively, feel safe, and have some level of engagement

7. People need to feel safe in teams to speak up; people need to have a process by which they can actually speak to begin with, for which managers are responsible.

• “You have to be run by ideas, not HIERARCHY…Otherwise, the best people don’t stay.” – Steve Jobs

• “People should say what they think, just don’t forget the thinking part, which is what many times the issue is.” – TA

• “If I speak out and people react negatively to what I say, that is where the fear comes in.” – TA

• Despite the fact that they serve a need in organizations, within team discussions, we have to break down hierarchies.

• Ideas need to win if you want to succeed in business, you will be in a better position to make decisions based on the positions you are in that are consistent with the strategy of your organization

8. If you want to be a manager who is effective in your job, you need to let people have an impact on the business.

• Dictating to people and making their lives miserable by micromanaging them will cause them to leave

• If you want the best people to remain in your organization, you have to involve them. This creates an environment where everybody is accountable to the same degree

IMG_17309. Collaboration requires 1) A focus on the process underlying team dynamics; 2) allowing people to make decisions; to be run by ideas, not a hierarchy

• Open feedback, collecting data over time, recognizing that people have different personalities, are all important but what we need to think of is how to make people work well together instead of focusing on simply hiring the same type of person.

• Collaboration is conflict. We have to be able to create a systematic procedure for constructive conflict.

10. Professor Brion ended his talk by offering ideas that teams can experiment with that can help build and strengthen collaboration:

Float a trial balloon: Make an absurd suggestion to your team and see how they react; when deciding on projects, say something completely ridiculous and start a conversation around the dynamic that unfolds in your teams

Appoint a rotating facilitator: Appoint someone who will ensure that there is an effective process in the team or delegate that process to not only enable them to contribute but also enable them to attend to things that leaders don’t have time to attend to

Appoint a devil’s advocate: Have two teams to debate; it feels safer to do it when the role is assigned rather than it needs to come out from one’s own mouth (read: appearing as though it’s personal belief)

Go around the room and ask the most junior person to speak first: While it may be a different level of pressure on a junior person, the different opinions to be heard can be surprising

Get out of the room for part of your team does its deliberation: Not being in the room when deliberations are happening can enable the dynamics of discussions to change

David Cote, the executive chairman of Honeywell, summed it best how leaders can truly build a valuable collaborative environment:

“Your job as a leader is to be right at the end of the meeting, not at the beginning of the meeting. It’s your job to flush out all the facts, all the opinions, and, at the end, make a good decision because you’ll get measured on whether you made a good decision, and not whether it was your idea from the beginning.”




What I liked best with Mr. Brion’s talk — most especially when he got to Ray Dalio’s unusual approach* to get his company employees to collaborate — is the fact that what he brought with him are ideas that you will either feel strongly for or against. The reaction to these ideas are beside the point, I guess. The whole point is that he got you to feel strongly about it. And where there are strong reactions, thought will follow. So I find myself thinking about the Ray Dalio way – long after Mr. Brion’s  talk ended.

– Tina Beloria
VP Controller

Our evolutionary success as a species was based on cooperation and similarly, this is a prerequisite to the success of our corporations. The problem is that collaboration can be hampered by other objectives, such as the necessary recourse to (1) expertise, (2) power given to some leaders for efficient decision-making.

In other words, in front of (1) experts, (2) decision-makers, people might be discouraged to speak up, which can create a vicious circle: People shut up, and so they are no longer consulted, which takes away opportunities to speak up.

Sebastien Brion illustrated ways to address these adverse dynamics through a rather extreme example, that of Bridgewater, where absolute transparency and engagement in meetings is prescribed and no side conversations are allowed. While this model might be difficult to apply in an organization like ours, we should systematically include a genuinely collaborative approach in every aspect of our work.

– Jerome Cachau
VP Business Development
Aboitiz InfraCapital

*Ray Dalio,  founder of Bridgewater Associates, the largest hedge fund company in the world, is known for idiosyncratic practices such as videotaping all company meetings.