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Is your inner caveman beating back collaboration?


29 June 2016

Dr Nicola Millard

Blogs by author: Dr Nicola Millard, Head of Customer Insight and Futures, BT


How to achieve effective collaboration when your inner caveman only trusts what it sees and doesn’t like sharing.

Wham, bam, thank you ma’am.

I like to imagine that, back in the Stone Age, life was simple: a cave for shelter, fire for warmth, and a daily routine of hunting and foraging to survive. Not an Outlook reminder or Facebook update to be seen.

Life was straightforward and the caveman brain was wired to only deal with the basics, and to do so face-to-face. When it was a battle to just survive the day, you trusted the people you knew and the evidence of your eyes — and nothing else. And decisions were simple: fight or flight, friend or foe.

Is today’s workstyle upsetting your inner caveman?

Evolution has led to a more complicated society: the face-to-face approach is no longer a necessity, and our decisions and ambitions are more elaborate.

Thanks to technology, we’ve discovered the freedom to roam while still communicating — and we like it. This flexibility has proved to be very precious to us, helping us to achieve more and to better balance different aspects of our lives, by cutting the chains tethering us to the office.

Plus, now we’re not fighting for survival every day, we face a whole array of objectives and targets — particularly in the working environment.

But has your inner caveman got the memo that things have changed?

Cave brains find it hard to collaborate.

The more I delve into the effect of technology on the workplace, the more I realise that our brains are still hardwired into the Stone Age.

Fundamentally, distance reduces our levels of trust. So, the more our teams spread across the globe (or even wander off to work in the local coffee shop), the weaker our working bonds. When people are strangers and have very little in common beyond their ability to connect, they are unlikely to trust each other. It’s that caveman mentality popping up (club in hand); suspicious of a stranger who isn’t one of the tribe.

In terms of working together, this makes it hard to form strong teams over distance and it puts barriers in the way of true, effective collaboration.

Plus, work today — particularly for knowledge workers — involves juggling different demands on your time. Do you focus on ticking the boxes on your individual performance to-do list, or do you work for the greater good of the organisation and spend time sharing your knowledge to help others achieve? Your caveman brain wants to target what appears to be most important — visibly achieving performance rather than unselfishly sharing knowledge and skills. It wants to pile up complete work assignments like primitive hunting trophies.

And yet we know, with our wise, developed minds, that collaboration brings benefits to us, our teams and our organisations.

Updating our thinking for success.

The bottom line is that collaboration needs nurturing, and a big part of that is recognising we’re caught in a power struggle between our caveman brain and the requirements of today’s society.

We need to make it as easy as possible for people to collaborate, giving them state-of-the art collaboration tools and making sure they understand how to use them. We need to value collaboration within our organisations so that we can overcome our inherent urge to put our own interests first. And we need to lead this new approach to collaboration from the front, choosing and training leaders to champion the sharing of knowledge, and re-evaluating how we define productive work.

Find out how you can solve the collaboration conundrum in your organisation by reading my latest white paper. I’d love to know your thoughts.