Thought Leadership


Deffet Group’s thought leaders regularly produce educational content, keeping our firm current on industry trends and research in aging services, human services, and best practices in not-for-profit executive search. Our senior leaders participate as regular attendees and presenters at national and state-level LeadingAge and other not-for-profit association conferences. To discuss how our firm can provide your organization with personalized educational sessions for board members and senior leadership teams, please contact Elizabeth Feltner at


Collaboration, Co-creation, and Cooperation: Three Keys to Building a Strong Team

Elizabeth Feltner, M.A., A.B.D.

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” – Michael Jordan

“Teamwork divides the task and multiplies the success.” –Author Unknown

In today’s global and technologically advanced marketplace, the need for teamwork skills and the ability to collaborate with others in diverse group settings has never been greater. You are probably already aware that collaborative expertise is considered the new key competency for business success. In a study commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities asking employers to rank essential learning outcomes for those entering the workplace, teamwork skills and the ability to collaborate were listed as the top-ranked outcomes in two major categories. One executive pointed out that what he looks for is employees who “are good team people over anything else. I can teach the technical” (Peter D. Hart Research Associates). Even in highly specialized scientific fields, cross-disciplinary collaborative research and practice has become standard procedure and the key to success in scientific breakthroughs, according to Dr. Peter Agre, winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Kenneth G. Wilson, a leading American Theoretical Theorist, shares this view, stating, “The hardest problems in pure and applied science can only be solved by the open collaboration of the world-wide scientific community.”

We all know the old adages, “Two heads are better than one,” and “None of us is as good as all of us.” However, growing your team members to a place where they recognize themselves as collaborators, co-creators of their success, and able to achieve this success in a cooperative endeavor can be difficult. Oftentimes, when three or more interdependent group members interact and work toward a common goal, they never achieve the ideal: what is known as synergy. Synergy is the cooperative interaction of several factors that results in a combined effect far greater than the total of all individual contributions. The term comes from the Greek word “synergos,” meaning, “working together.” Obviously, synergy cannot occur when people work alone. It occurs only when people work together.

But how can you get your team to move from simply “working together” to achieving synergy—and thereby yielding the very best results? We believe that incorporating the following “C’s of Collaboration” can make all the difference in your group’s success.

The “C’s” of Building Collaborative Teams

Communicate Clear Expectations

It is the responsibility of the executive leadership team to clearly communicate expectations for the team’s performance and outcomes. It is crucial that they know why they are working together, and the role this project will have on the success of your organization. Begin by making sure they understand why the team was created. Provide your team members with general purpose and goal statements for each project. In a three-year study of characteristics that explain how and why effective groups develop, “a clear and elevated goal” was at the top of the list (Larson and LaFasto). Have them review the purposes and goals and, at the outset, they should work together to create specific goal statements of their own and an action plan for how they will reach their goals. Specific goals lead to higher performance than do generalized goals, but if your group is given what someone else thinks is a clear and elevated goal, they may not be as inspired. However, if your group develops its own goal, the motivation of members to achieve that goal is heightened (Johnson and Johnson). Most importantly, remember: as a leader, how clearly you communicate the overall vision, mission, and values of your organization will be the driving force for moving the team forward.


While clear and elevated goals create a sense of excitement and even urgency, it is equally important that you secure commitment to the goals from each team member. Do all team members feel that their mission as a team is important? Are they aware of the effects their work will have on the overall success of the organization, its clients, and coworkers? It is key that from the outset, all of the team members recognize their service as valuable to the organization and their own careers. We recommend that after creating the group purpose and goal statement, the team develop a “commitment statement” that each member signs, acknowledging their firm commitment to promoting the group’s success.


It is crucial that the team feels it has the appropriate people participating. Does the team feel that its members have the knowledge, skill and capability to address the issues for which the team was formed? If not, does the team have access to the help it needs? One of the surest ways to create chaos and diminish motivation, performance, and morale is to expect people to perform without the tools and resources they need to deliver outcomes both they, and you, can be proud of. Executive leadership should have “check-in” points in place where you and the team can assess whether or not the resources, strategies, and support needed to accomplish the mission are in place or available. When a team knows it has your support should they feel they need additional help, their own collaborative strength is immediately strengthened. And at the same time, they recognize that they are not only co-collaborators with each other, but also, with the full range of resources in your organization—including you.


A team needs to feel that they have enough freedom and power necessary to accomplish their goals. At the same time, it is important that all of your team members recognize and clearly understand their boundaries. Some questions to clarify at the outset: How far may members go in pursuit of solutions? What are the limitations (for example, financial and time resources) of the project? Make sure these are defined at the beginning of the project. Also, is the team’s accountability (i.e. level of, and to whom) understood by all members of the organization? How much authority do they have, for example, to make recommendations and implement their plan? If these issues aren’t clarified at the beginning of the project, the team may experience an understandable level of hesitancy in moving forward in the way you’d like to see them progress.


We know you already realize how important effective and cooperative communication is to any relationship, and especially to your cooperation with and between group members. But one way to improve any communicative situation is to remember to create a supportive communication climate. In a supportive climate, a setting is created in which members feel free to share their opinions and feelings. Synergy can occur only when a group functions in a supportive climate. Supportive behaviors you can suggest your team foster in their interactions include:

  • Description: Describes another person’s behavior. Makes understanding statements. Uses more I and we language, and avoids judgmental, critical, you based statements.
  • Problem Orientation: Seeks a mutually agreeable solution. Avoids imposing a solution on someone else or seeking control of the situation.
  • Spontaneity: Makes straightforward, direct, open, honest, and helpful comments, and asks clear questions during the interaction. Encourages brainstorming and idea-generating when group is experiencing a stand-still towards progress.
  • Empathy: Accepts and understands another person’s feelings. Doesn’t withdraw, detach, or overreact to another’s emotions. Acknowledges how other group members are feeling regardless of individual opinion of whether another’s emotions are “right” or “wrong” reactions.
  • Equality: Suggests that everyone can make a useful contribution. Avoids superiority (i.e. implying that you and your opinions are better than others). Rejects resentment and jealousy over other group members’ good ideas.
  • Provisionalism: Offers ideas and accepts suggestions from others. Considers all options and asks questions like, “Of all the great options we have here, which one makes the most sense for this step?”

(Adapted from Jack Gibb’s ‘Defensive Communication’, Journal of Communication 2)

When your team members interact in a supportive communication climate, they are going to be more willing to give and receive feedback, which is crucial for moving the project forward. Other communication strategies for you to consider training employees on, if they haven’t received training in these areas already, include (but certainly aren’t limited to), the importance of dialogue, examining assumptions, active listening, steps for asking for clarification, and other non-defensive models. The key to keeping the communication flow rich and effective is making sure that both you and your associates feel safe to express needs, be heard, and enthusiastically continue their work toward creating innovative solutions with and for each other.


This should be a two-pronged effort on leadership’s behalf. One way to enact celebration is to have a rewards or recognition program in place for group successes. Giving public recognition on the company intranet, newsletter, or in a staff meeting can go a long way in encouraging groups to continue to do their best work. Also, rewards such as gift certificates to a spa or sporting/special event are just a few low-cost, no-cost ways to acknowledge team members for a job well done. When creating a reward system, don’t link rewards solely to an idea or project’s direct financial implications. You want to drive employees to improve such outcomes as customer loyalty and customer satisfaction, as well. If your incentive system is linked primarily to revenue, some of the best ideas may get ignored. Celebrate all types of group success: seeing a project to completion is a success all in itself, and recognizing the group’s efforts at reaching that goal can help foster their own desire to continue to perform at their highest level on future projects.

Further, while specific reward systems can temporarily boost morale and make your team members feel appreciated, much research indicates that money/financial rewards alone aren’t effective motivators. While workers (obviously) require payment, their tendencies to perform at their highest levels are more likely influenced by intrinsic motivation—the desire to do something based on the enjoyment or personal fulfillment that comes from completing a task. One way to foster intrinsic motivation is to create inspiring visions for team members and opportunities to not only provide input, but also to receive assurance that their input is valuable to an organization. When you ensure such elements are present in a professional setting, your employees are likely to work not just because they have to, but more importantly, because they want to. Another way to help “grow” intrinsic motivation is to up the “fun factor” of the work environment. Build fun and shared occasions into the organization’s agenda, where the employees feel like they are part of something that is meaningful in their lives. These can also be low-cost or no-cost events. Hold potluck lunches, take the team to a performance or cultural event, or plan an outdoor outing to a free local festival or outdoor concert, and picnic on the grounds beforehand. Host dinners at a local restaurant, or on-site, and include your associates’ families to as many of these social events as possible. Consider planning an outdoor event such as hiking, bicycling, or even an adventure-based day, such as river rafting. They key to this “prong” in your two-pronged effort is not to focus on offering specific, monetary rewards, but in creating an atmosphere of camaraderie and community in the workplace. When group members feel that they “belong” or are “a part of” an organization, their natural inclination to collaborate and cooperate in a team situation greatly increases.

Concluding Remarks

Effective synergy occurs when the knowledge, talents, and dedication of group members merges into a force that surpasses anything group members could have produced without cooperative interaction. Ultimately, this is your goal for every group project. Following the above tips can help encourage your team members to make it their goal for every project, too. When employees feel like they are making meaningful contributions to a company in which they have a personal place and investment, in every venture in which they are called upon to collaborate, they are most likely to approach the situation by remembering that the secret is to gang up on the problem, not each other.

About the Author
Elizabeth Feltner, M.A., A.B.D. photo

Elizabeth Feltner, M.A., A.B.D., is Vice President of Deffet Group, Inc. She works collaboratively with clients nationwide to identify and retain executive leaders and advance organizational success. An accomplished public speaker for employers and national conferences, frequent topics include succession planning, on-boarding, and leadership development.