What is the secret of successful collaboration?
One key element is trust, based on a recognition that the members of a collaborative group have a high degree of respect for each other’s strengths, expertise and knowledge.
An outstanding example of a successful collaboration is the Brentano String Quartet, the quartet in residence at Yale. Last year, I had the pleasure of interviewing the ensemble about their collaboration. The quartet has been together since 1992 and it is clear that they deeply trust each other. They are willing to explore new ideas, they communicate their concerns, give and absorb feedback respectfully and share in the joy of making great music together.
Yet it takes a lot of work to create an ensemble that functions as smoothly as the Brentanos. I coach a lot of ensembles and project groups to help them improve their effectiveness. Often, one member of the group will approach me privately to say that something is not working in the ensemble, with concerns such as:
- We just aren’t getting along and it is interfering with our ability to rehearse and perform well.
- Our rehearsals just are not productive because we can’t seem to focus on the big picture and we get bogged down in the details.
- We throw out ideas but judge them so quickly that we often don’t try out new things and I think we are forcing solutions that are not working very well.
My starting point when I coach ensembles and collaborative groups is to discover and leverage the power of strengths. Let’s see how this process can build trust and improve the overall effectiveness of the ensembles by focusing on the four domains of leadership strengths.
The Strengths Process
The first step in my process is to ask each member of the group to take the Gallup Organization’s StrengthsFinder 2.0 assessment which identifies your top 5 “themes” or strengths.
The premise of the assessment is that you can lead with any of these strengths and that by knowing and developing your strengths, you can become much more effective at what you do. While not infallible, the assessment provides rich insights into how you operate at your best. As applied to a collaborative group or ensemble, each member contributes his or her strengths so as to maximize the optimal functioning of the group.
The Gallup assessment goes further by identifying 4 categories or the 4 domains of leadership strengths.
Even if you do not take the assessment, you can probably figure out where your strengths
Let’s take a closer look at these four categories of strengths and see how various musical ensembles and collaborative groups have benefitted from understanding and leveraging their strengths in order to build trust and make their groups function more effectively. As you read each description, see where your strengths lie!
The Four Domains of Strengths
People with influencing strengths love to take charge, are strong communicators, enjoy persuading others to join their cause and know how to “sell” their ideas both to the members of the group and to outsiders (like audience members, presenters, donors and arts administrators).
Members of collaborative groups and ensembles typically do not have a “leader” per se but rather each member contributes his or her expertise and steps up as necessary. Groups benefit from those who know how to take command while allowing others to shine. Yet, challenges arise when the influencers overdo it.
In one project group in my class at Yale last semester, the person who had come up with the idea for the project was the natural leader of the group. She worried about being too “bossy” but her collaborators had deep respect for her leadership qualities and she, in turn, learned to be more comfortable assuming the leadership role by assigning tasks and allowing her fellow collaborators to shine within their assigned role. In another group where the person with influencing strengths asserted too much control, the strategy of assigning specific tasks that aligned with the role of the other members enabled the group to come together and successfully see their project to completion.
What about if the person with influencing strengths holds back for fear of coming across as too domineering?
One of our project groups experienced this dynamic where the influencer held back on organizing his colleagues. Initially, the group found itself engaging in endless discussions without coming to any concrete solutions until the influencer took charge to create an agenda and led the meeting with actionable steps for the rest of the group’s members. The other collaborators reported feeling a sense of relief that someone was taking charge of the meetings.
In the ensemble setting, the same dynamic was present. The person with the influencing strengths would sometimes hold back with ideas in order to encourage the other collaborators to step up with their own thoughts. The result tended to be unproductive rehearsals because a few collaborators were uncomfortable sharing ideas until they had worked things out in their own minds, a process which required them to take more time. After our coaching session, the “influencer” felt more comfortable taking charge at rehearsal and allowing his colleagues to weigh in after they had had a chance to formulate their own ideas.
What about when a group has two people with influencing strengths?
In one group, the two “influencers” carved out separate roles so that they would not overlap. This worked out very well for the group’s overall functioning.
In another ensemble, however, the two influencers were often in conflict both over how to conduct rehearsals as well as with musical decisions. The result was that the other ensemble members felt uncomfortable sharing their ideas. That’s when they came to see me for a coaching session. By talking through the dynamic, the two influencers realized the impact of their disagreements and agreed to back off and share their differences outside of the ensemble, as well as solicit ideas from the rest of the group.
Bottom line with influencers:
Use your strengths to lead the group effectively but don’t dominate to the point that you shut out your colleagues!
2. Strategic thinking
Strategic thinkers love to think, analyze, learn, come up with new ideas and are great at absorbing new information and inputs in order to come up with better decisions.
Strategic thinkers are often the ones with the creative, wild ideas. Some group members felt comfortable brainstorming and sharing ideas whereas others were more reticent for fear of being judged. What helped was to establish rules in the group process for not judging ideas prematurely and giving new ideas a fair shot before rejecting them. Note that this is consistent with the principles of creativity that encourage “divergent” thinking with wild crazy ideas and not judging any ideas until you are ready to enter the convergent thinking stage to select the best ideas!
Strategic thinkers love to learn and collect inputs. One ensemble member has used this strength to conduct research into the composers whose works her group performs. She then incorporates this information into pre-concert talks.
Another ensemble member with the same kind of learning strengths applies this strength by preparing extensively for rehearsals. She digs deeply into score study and comes up with big picture concepts before listening to the work in rehearsal. She needs time to generate her concepts and felt challenged that she was uncomfortable sharing her ideas until she was sure of what she was going for. In our coaching session, she explained her process to her fellow collaborators. They understood her need for time and praised her for coming up with great ideas. The result of the coaching session was that she felt more comfortable taking her time and her colleagues appreciated her need for time.
Bottom line on strategic thinking:
Encourage new ideas and don’t judge prematurely! Allow learners to dig deeply and share their learning. Give people time to share their ideas as they put together their inputs and feel more comfortable in the group setting.
People with executing strengths thrive on working through problems to restore order, are focused and deliberative, enjoy achieving results and are good at taking ideas and seeing that they are implemented. Indeed, every group needs people who are great at follow-through!
In one ensemble, one individual with a lot of focus and deliberation took on the responsibilities of sending emails and making business arrangements because her colleagues knew that she would get the job done. So far, she is fine with taking on these tasks because the group has divided up other work in a way that feels balanced.
One of our class project groups was fortunate to have an “achiever” on the team who made extensive lists that she enjoyed ploughing through and checking off her to-do’s. Achievers thrive on getting things done. The challenge is not to take on so much that you never feel finished with your work. For all you achievers out there, rein in what you do! And for team members with achievers on board, be sure not to overload them and be responsible for your own tasks.
An interesting “executing” strength is called “restorative”. That means that you are motivated to solve problems because you want to restore order. One ensemble member with the restorative strength shared that her process was “trial and error”, but because of her need to come to a solution, she sometimes offered solutions that felt forced. After discussing this issue with her group, she pledged to hold back on the need to come to a quick solution and instead to listen to other ideas in order to come up with better decisions.
Bottom line on executing:
Watch out that you do not overload your “executor” with too many tasks because this breeds resentment. Moreover, for those who do not have executing strengths, if you commit to doing something, be sure to follow through because otherwise, you will let down the rest of your team.
4. Relationship building
People who are strong in building relationships care deeply about their fellow collaborators. They exhibit high empathy, encourage others through their positivity, are adaptable and considerate of others and tailor solutions to the needs of the individual.
Relationship builders are the “glue” of the team. Often, these are the people who approach me when the group is not functioning smoothly because they care so deeply about the feelings of the rest of the group.
Yet problems arise when the relationship building strengths get in the way of one’s ability to share ideas.
For example, those with the “empathy” strength are keenly aware of and even sensitive to the feelings and needs of their fellow collaborators. They often defer to the ideas of other people in order to avoid a disagreement. This means that their ideas are often not heard. The reason? In our class project groups, those with a lot of relationship strengths shared that they did not feel comfortable offering up their ideas until they had a better sense of how the group operated and could trust their fellow group members. Once they were able to feel comfortable in the group setting, they were able to share their ideas.
Similarly, in one ensemble, an empathetic group member took a long time to explain her ideas rehearsals because she was so careful not to offend anyone with what they might perceive as a dissenting view. This frustrated her colleagues because they felt that she was not using their rehearsal time efficiently. In our coaching session, she agreed to be more succinct because she sensed that her colleagues were genuinely interested in what she had to say and this made her more comfortable to share her ideas.
In another ensemble, a group member who is very adaptable mentioned that she is influenced by the ideas of others and is happy to go along with the rest of the group. She worried that she was adapting too much until she realized that this strength helped her to understand and appreciate how her fellow collaborators used their strengths.
Bottom line with relationship builders:
Create rules of safety in the group such as confidentiality within the group and no criticism of other ideas but instead give ideas a fair shot before dismissing them.
Allow your relationship builders some time to settle in.
Encourage them to share their ideas even if they do not volunteer to do so.
Collaborative groups and ensembles benefit greatly when each member can contribute his or her strengths to the group. So take a page from these fine musicians and see how you can understand your strengths and those of your collaborators and leverage those strengths to make your group a masterful collaboration.