In Collaboration We Trust

By April 24, 2013Millennial

Collaboration is the new way to work. Walls are being removed and collaboration points are being designed into workplaces. However, collaboration is not new. It is being revived though. In a new world of extreme connectedness, collaboration is rising as a strategic and practical way to gain competitive advantage.

At the core of collaboration is trust. Trust needs to be evident in the relationships – how work is done, how words are spoken, and how the results are accounted for. Without trust, collaboration falls apart quickly and, sometimes, irreparably.

In Collaboration Trust

Four Trust Collaboration Principles

Since trust is so crucial, there needs to be a clear focus on how to protect it while letting it flourish fully. To foster trust, outlined below are four principles for effective collaboration.

Principle 1: Empathy must be evident in individual interactions.

Empathy is a funny word. It seems people take it as one of those “warm and fuzzy” things and, therefore, isn’t something real leaders should do. The reality is quite different. Empathy is just an act of experiencing something from another’s perspective. Yes, it can involve feelings. And, yes, it can include understanding another’s insights, concerns, and value. All of these are necessary when it comes to collaboration.

For collaboration to work well, all involved need to demonstrate empathy in the way we listen, talk, and act. Listening to really understand what another person is saying is the only way to find common points to leverage. Talking in a way to be understood and heard delivers the right tone for collaboration. Acting to ensure others are involved in a meaningful way and using their unique talents produces real collaborative results.

More than building trust, empathy makes trust active.

Principle 2: The group mission must be paramount above the individual objectives.

Self-interest plays a role in many interactions. It is a part of human nature, yet the really skillful leaders and team members know the role of self-interest and temper it when working for larger goals. There is a hierarchy of interests, especially when it comes to collaboration. The highest interest is the group’s mission and initiative. The work being done must be framed around what is best for the group and stakeholders, not the individual.

When self-interest is at the center, all breaks. Unbridled self-interests creates unbearable organizational politics. Competing self-interests creates confusion and slows progress. Overbearing self-interests diminishes how much others are willing to put into a mission or initiative. In these cases, collaboration is just a nice sounding word on a motivational poster hanging in an office. It is hiding real intent and misusing the talented people in a team and organization.

Although trust starts at an individual level, it also ends here. Trusted relationships focus on the higher mission and goals. Trusted relationships collaborate to move groups forward positively to achieve major initiatives and goals for the best of all stakeholders.

Principle 3: Interdependence will deliver the best results.

In the everyday workings of teams, the interdependent ones will accomplish more in a shorter time. It is about knowing everyone’s strengths and using them fully. We need to be dependent on others when they have the insight, talent, and capability to do an activity in the best way possible. A team dependent on another’s strengths creates a strong bond of interdependence.

At times, leaders seem to think it is all about being a strong, rugged, and independent person. This is how leadership is exhibited. It is untrue. The strongest leaders are the interdependent ones. The highest achieving teams are the interdependent ones.

For interdependence to work well, trust is crucial. Trust empowers interdependence. Without trust, we become individuals in a maze, wasting time to find our way. With trust, we give each other a lift up as well as let others lead in areas of their gifts.

Principle 4: Progress is linear, non-circular.

Progress may not be exactly linear, as detours and potholes will surely happen. Overall, though, when looking at accomplishments, the graphical line shows linear progress. It is about getting from Point A to Point B in the straightest line possible.

What derails progress are circle-jerks. These are the people who talk in circles or always re-visit issues that have been already resolved. They keep teams in a circular motion, making everyone dazed and confused. People who do this may be extremely self-centered or inadequate in some way. To show their “smarts,” they chase their argumentative tail and all get confused in the process.

For collaboration to work, plans need to be built to take progress forward. For collaboration to work, meetings need to run in a purposeful, interactive, and results-oriented way. Working collaboration is proven when progress is linear.

Trust embraces accountability. If circles are being run, then there needs to be an accountability check to stop it. If progress is being thwarted or stuck, then accountability of actions needs to be reviewed and changes made. Trust enables forward progress, preventing circular, non-action and fostering mutual accountability.

Trust and Collaboration, Collaboration and Trust

Trust and collaboration go very well together. It is not about dampening individuality; it is about knowing everyone’s talents and gifts and using them fully. Effective collaboration requires trust, and trust empowers effective collaboration.

What trust principles do you embrace in collaboration? 

Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz is one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business and highlighted as one of the Leaders to Watch in 2015 by the American Management Association. He also is the author of Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders. Jon serves as vice president of marketing at Corepoint Health. Outside of his professional life, Jon brings together a community to inspire Millennial leaders and close the gap between two generations of leaders.
Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz

Latest posts by Jon Mertz (see all)

Join the discussion 18 Comments

  • Sean Glaze says:


    Thanks for the article – some really good points. I also loved the image that you shared to illustrate. One thing I felt was interesting was your 4th point – I agree that progress is linear… but teams often need to be reminded that success is seldom a “straight line drive.” We should be less concerned with efficiency of going from point a to point b and more grateful for the unexpected insights and relationships that the journey produces.

  • […] Mertz shares his post, In Collaboration We Trust from his blog Thin Difference.  Collaboration succeeds when trust is active and trust is […]

  • […] Mertz shares his post, In Collaboration We Trust from his blog Thin Difference.  Collaboration succeeds when trust is active and trust is […]

  • Hiten Vyas says:

    Hi Jon,

    Wonderful insights on trust and collaboration. There is one principle you mentioned in your post, which I definitely embrace. It is the one about a team being interdependent in a way, where we all know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and firstly are respectful about this. Secondly, each individual works to his/her own strengths in the group. In the process what happens is that other team members will compensate the weaknesses of the individual as these will be their strengths.

    Thank you.

    • Jon M says:

      Agree, Hiten. We all have strengths and, when teams are truly interdependent, individuals become stronger and the outcome of the group is even more powerful. Leveraged strength is the strength of interdependence. Thanks for joining in with you comments! Jon

  • Marquita Herald says:

    Terrific article Jon. During my career in sales and marketing I participated in numerous successful collaborations, and loved the experience. Unfortunately I can’t say the same since jumping out of corporate America and into the world of entrepreneurship. Oh, it’s easy to find people who like the “idea” of partnering, quite another thing to find people willing to do their share of the work. I’ll admit I’m certainly no expert, but having had some success with collaboration in the past, what I’ve observed is that many entrepreneurs find it difficult to put a group mission ahead of their own self-interests.

    • Jon M says:

      I agree, Marquita. Entrepreneurship somehow gets boxed into a fixed mindset of it being a solo endeavor. However, the really successful entrepreneurs bring in talented team members and really collaborate in a trustful and respectful way. Thanks for your added insights! Jon

  • […] In Collaboration We Trust Written by: Jon Mertz […]

  • Alli Polin says:

    Fantastic, Jon! The one that really struck me (and I strongly agree with all) is #4: Progress is Linear – non circular. Collaboration means we (ok, I) need to let go of being right all the time and having things to just the way we pictured it in our minds. There is no hope of moving forward with that one person circling back over and over to their brillant idea or their preferred path. Do it once? OK. Do it over and over, and you’re holding back the team… you’re not collaborating but you are doing your best to be dictating – trying to beat people down to your POV. I’ve worked with more than a few people like this and while they are well intentioned, they do not serve the customer, team or business with this behavior.

    • Jon M says:

      Thank you, Alli, and we do need to hold ourselves self-accountable on going in circles, as do the others involved. Trust makes the accountability a little easier and, at times, we may just need to laugh a little at ourselves or the situation to get it unstuck. I am grateful for your insights and feedback! Jon

  • Jon, appreciate another great post with a thoughtful model! Your post made me think of several things. First, it reminds me of what a mentor of my dissertation advisor said to him many years ago – “I don’t look for people with complementary skills or knowledge to collaborate with. I find people I like and trust, and figure out what we can do together.” While this isn’t always possible in the business world, his point underscores the importance of trust in collaboration that you described here, Jon.

    Also, When reading through your model, I couldn’t help but think of the willingness to be open and vulnerable for trust in collaborative endeavors to be fostered. I don’t mean airing personal laundry, but when we talk about interdependence and setting aside personal agenda for group success, it requires us to be truly open to others’ ideas that may not be native to us, and to be vulnerable to the team potentially not having our back. In any event, trust is a multi-faceted concept. Thanks for providing such a great framework to get the discussion going!

    • Jon M says:

      A great point, Alice. Being vulnerable is what opens people up to collaborate more freely and it also builds a stronger bond of trust. Vulnerability, and our willingness to do be vulnerable, is a great add. Thank you! Jon

  • Another wonderful post Jon. Always love the graphics too! : )

    Collaboration is definitely where it’s AT. The challenge is for some, it’s more natural to do then others; especially since command and control style hierarchies have been dominant for so long now. I realize even mentioning is really not even necessary at this point and has been very much beaten into the ground as a topic. However, I wanted to highlight that it IS a challenge for people to switch mindset gears. It’s not something people can immediately stop and head into the collaborative direction without the space of transition in between. I, myself, need to be more aware of this as I can catch myself becoming inpatient.

    When I read this post earlier, it had me wondering about the whole topic of empathy. Have you noticed a progressive evolution in your own life personally in becoming more empathetic as a whole in your interactions with people? (hope this makes sense) I’m asking because I realize that everyone seems to have a different ‘sensitivity’ level when it comes to this ‘quality’. Some are simply more empathetic by nature then others are. Perhaps it is a natural ‘gift’?

    That said, I also have noticed in my own life that while I’ve always felt ’empathy/compassion’ towards others (in differing degrees) since childhood, it has also evolved and changed thru my various life experiences. Even while working as a nurse before my husband died, I understood the ‘theory’ surrounding death, dying, and the grieving process and ‘witnessed’ it in patients and their family members. Yet, was still more of a secondary empathy. Then, after my husband died, having the experience first hand has deepened my understanding and so now there is a deeper layer of empathy towards others who experience loss in their own life.

    So I guess what is coming up for me is this ‘sense’ that people are at different ’empathy’ levels and this will evolve over time. For some, it may retain more of an intellectual ’emotional intelligence’ quality to it rather then from a ‘feeling’ state. For others, it will be more of the latter.

    Anyway, those are some thoughts that came up for me. Loved this post Jon. You definitely have a good handle on the ingredients necessary to create and foster healthy collaborative teams and organizations.

    • Jon M says:

      Thanks so much for your insightful, heartfelt comments, Samantha. I do believe that our experiences enliven our empathy and compassion. Although we have it within, it strengthens with our experiences and our interactions with others.

      Even though some of the “command and control” mentality still exists, I believe it is fading as this new Generation Y enters leadership roles. The Millennial leaders seem to be more attuned to empathy in life and the workplace. Some of it may be based on personal experiences, and more of it may be based on experiences that have happened on the national and world stages. Either way, this is a positive shift.

      Your insights and perspectives are greatly appreciated, Samantha. Thank you!

  • Terri Klass says:

    What a great post, Jon! All four areas you mention are critical for collaboration to be successful. I also believe and have seen that without trust there is truly no foundation for a collaboration. Patrick Lencioni speaks to the basic rung of trust in his “Five Dysfunctions of a Team”and asserts that it is the most essential before creating any outcomes together. I love your description of circle-jerks. Those folks are never there to support the team efforts, but rather to hear their own voices. Leaders need to gently step in and facilitate with care. Thanks for your words of wisdom!

    • Jon M says:

      Really appreciate your comments and feedback, Terri! Trust has to be at the center, as you point out. It is what will move the team forward and, hopefully, prevent the circular conversations. Thanks! Jon

  • Beautifully done, Jon! It’s great to see these points articulated so succinctly. I love your writing style and capacity to capture complex ideas in simple words, without any oversimplification or compression. (I envy this ability!)

    My experience with collaboration has been that if #1, #2, and #3 are genuinely present, #4 often will take care of itself, although calling it out reminds us all that no system is perfect and sometimes with the best of intentions we get stuck in our own perspectives. When that occurs, I’m liable to blame incomplete attention to Principle #3 and the trend to assume that interdependence means harmony. Better minds than mine have suggested for a long time that interdependence is what actually breeds conflict — and it’s the failure to fully surface and address the conflicts that generates the circularity problem. I’ve watched lots of circular (often overly intellectual) conversations belie much deeper differences in approach, values, and method — sometimes also clouded with unexpressed interpersonal differences. These conversations never get to the truly hard stuff as people try to find ways to rework their unsatisfying compromises with a patina of “reasonable” but also highly addictive argument.

    So perhaps, there’s another principle in here about commitment to fully addressing the real differences conflicts. In this sense, maybe a true energy source for collaboration is transforming such human conflict into synergy. When I’ve seen that happen, progress shoots out the roof, inspiration governs, and sheer excitement becomes the day.

    • Jon M says:


      You added some great perspective to this (which is no surprise!). Have conversations that fully explore issues and challenges are very useful but, at times, there are other things going on, like the interpersonal and un-addressed differences. Another principle could be added in which the heart or crux of difference should be brought to light and discussed in an open and resolution-oriented way.

      Thank you for your kind comments and also for your important insights!


Leave a Reply