Illustration by Justin Tran
Illustration by Justin Tran

Work Culture

5 questions to improve collaboration


Published on February 27, 2018

Everyone works differently. The better you understand who your teammates are and how they operate, the better equipped you’ll be to collaborate with them. Start by asking these five questions.

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1. What is your personal workstyle?

When I was a senior writer at an agency, my creative team met regularly to brainstorm concepts for ad campaigns. While most of my colleagues preferred to work collaboratively, I knew I needed to start the process alone. As soon as the creative brief was available, I’d take a walk and start capturing ideas on index cards.

Showing up to the kick-off with a few solid concepts to contribute helped me relax and participate far more effectively in the group process. When the creative director asked about my solo prep time, he understood my workstyle better and built time for my process into our schedules.

This small adaptation benefited me, my team, and our clients. You may be able to make similar refinements — and create significant improvements — just by asking colleagues about what works best for them:

  • Do you tend to be the first to finish or the last to get started?
  • Are you more of a team player or a lone wolf?
  • What are the ideal circumstances for you to meet your deadlines?
  • How do you like to receive feedback?
  • Do you prefer to be on stage or behind the curtain?

Or you could use the assessment featured in the Harvard Business Review to discover and compare the unique way people think and process information. The more you understand about your colleagues’ workstyles, the better you’ll be able to keep in step, all the way across the finish line.

2. What is your personality type?

It’s natural to expect others around us to have similar ways of being and working—and it can be frustrating and confusing when they don’t. Having a sense of your teammates’ personalities can help you anticipate how they’re inclined to create, converse, and collaborate. While personality tests may not be at the peak of scientific rigor, they can still offer fun and helpful reference points for how we are similar and how we differ. For a shared reference point, consider inviting them to take one of these popular self-tests.

The insight you get can help increase understanding and empathy. And it may even help leverage individual strengths toward group efforts.

3. What are your power hours?

No one benefits from an 8 a.m. presentation if the presenter doesn’t come to life until noon. Nor does it make sense for a team to do its high-stakes creative work during their late afternoon slump—or maybe it does! Recent research reveals this inspiration paradox: innovation and creativity are greatest when we are not at our best. While your power hours are great for tasks that challenge us and demand your attention, they’re not optimal for insight problems that benefit from thinking outside the box. When it comes to optimal creative time, it turns out morning people have more insights in the evening. And night owls are more likely to have breakthroughs in the morning. Inquiring about colleagues’ power hours can help you navigate the paradoxes of optimal performance by engaging and protecting “challenge” hours and “creative” hours for everyone’s benefit.

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4. Who are your heroes?

A person’s heroes reveal the realms (such as history, entertainment, or politics) and archetypes (such as hero, explorer, or creator) they most identify with. Imagine the immediate impression you’d have of your contact in Accounts Payable if she said her hero was Dolly Parton, Elastigirl, Serena Williams, or Sojourner Truth. With this fun reference point, you could seek common ground and find ways to draw on her strengths in your shared work. (Elastigirl could surely make a budget S-T-R-E-T-C-H, right?) Make sure to learn not just who your teammates’ heroes are—but what they admire about them—to get a sense of how they see themselves. Another way to get playful about archetypes is to find a cultural reference that speaks to you all, such as:

  • What would your Hogwarts House be?
  • Which Star Wars character do you identify with?
  • Which Brady Bunch kid did you want to be?

5. What is your cathedral?

In my book Fierce on the Page, I share the parable of a traveler in medieval times who came upon a stonemason at work. He asked, “What are you doing?” The man looked weary and unhappy. He responded, “Can’t you see I am cutting and laying down stone? My back is killing me, and I can’t wait to stop.”

The traveler continued on his way and came upon a second stonemason. “What are you doing?” he asked. “I’m building a wall,” said the stonemason. “I’m grateful to have this work so I can support my family.”

As the traveler walked on, he encountered a third stonemason who seemed to be doing exactly the same work as the previous two. He asked the man, “What are you doing?” The man stood up straight. His face was radiant. He looked up at the sky and spread his arms wide. “I am building a cathedral,” he answered.

Even in a team of people technically doing the same work, everyone brings a unique sense of purpose and motivation. The more closely we can understand and align these, the more likely we are to collectively create a cathedral that inspires us all and makes a real difference. Ask your teammates:

Don’t forget to ask yourself these questions, as well. When you know your own workstyle, preferences, and tendencies, you’ll have more insight about how you relate to others. So, you’ll be better equipped to bring your “A game” to every collaboration—and support others in doing the same.

Sage Cohen is the author of Fierce on the Page, The Productive Writer, Writing the Life Poetic, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Since founding Sage Cohen Global in 1997, she’s been developing communication, education, and empowerment solutions that help people and businesses change the conversation.

Go from first draft to final deliverable
Go from first draft to final deliverable