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Before defining collaborator traits that can make any group’s effort much less effortful, an obvious truth is worth naming. No one has to collaborate. It’s not a mandatory part of life. Collaboration is a choice, an act of free will. An individual’s motivation usually ties to their personal or professional goals. I want to get this done — it won’t necessarily happen alone — and the involvement of others will help me accomplish it.

Collaborations naturally vacillate

When collaboration is in the air and working well, there’s often a sense of motion — movement in the direction of a shared goal. Stepping up to own a task inspires the same in one’s peers. One person’s contribution sparks an idea in another person and more ideas flow from there. It grows safer to disclose real thoughts and agendas. It may still carry a negotiating tone but there’s also a distinct quality of collective opportunity and progress in the air.

Of course, it can be messy. Whether or not the collaboration is going well, an outsider may observe what looks like controlled chaos. People challenge each other’s ideas. They question authority, including whether they themselves have enough authority to make a decision. Even the process itself is challenged, especially when a group finds itself in a sea of conflicting ideas with no clear way to reach agreement let alone closure.

Some people are natural collaborators. Others come to appreciate its value only after seeing its result. Regardless of how their skills are acquired, the presence of seasoned collaborators goes a long way is supporting a group’s work together and their eventual outcomes.

I wrote last month about the upside of collaboration and how it can take people past their individual limits and open entirely new doors. This post focuses on the characteristics of gifted collaborators – the people who bring invisible glue, clarity and a velvet touch in the midst of confusion or disagreement.

The chops of a collaborator

Think about the savviest collaborator you ever witnessed. Was it something in how they viewed the situation? Their timing when they spoke? Their ability to capture areas of common interest without alienating people on the fringe?

Great collaborators come in all shapes and sizes – extroverts and introverts, leaders and followers, and analytical and feeling types. The next time you’re assembling a team of collaborators, consider the degree to which your candidates enter the project with the traits listed below. Or how you might coach them in this direction. It’s also a helpful tool for gauging your own strengths and growing edges.

  1. Curiosity

Are they genuinely interested in and curious about other people?

Do they have a natural desire to learn through the exchange of ideas and active listening?

Can they suspend their own thoughts long enough to walk in another’s shoes?

  1. Intellectual honesty

Do they say what they mean and mean what they say (which saves a lot of time and energy for everyone)?

Do they appreciate reality for its own sake, with receptivity to having their minds changed when a better idea comes forward?

  1. Imagination

How well do they tolerate new ideas and step into to unfamiliar terrain?

Are they adept at noticing things outside the box?

Do they encourage the emergence of ideas from fellow collaborators?

  1. Humility

Do their words and actions suggest they care about something other than themselves?

Do they have a sense of their own limitations?

Are they beyond having to prove themselves?

Do they seek out people who are different from themselves to augment or supplement what they bring?

How easily do they let go of the need to be right, be first, and be the smartest person in the room?

  1. Patience

Can they tolerate an encumbered pace and varying degrees of group chaos?

Can they hold their frustration in check for the good of the whole?

Or do they slide into controlling behavior by driving, stymieing or aborting the work of the larger group?

  1. Tolerance for ambiguity

As with patience, can they tolerate ambiguity when it seeps in?

Or are they fast chargers whose only mode is quick, decisive decisions?

How do they approach direction-setting when things feel adrift?

  1. Reliability

Can they be counted on to come through, no matter how visible or invisible their role?

Do they invite others to be accountable without a punitive attitude or manipulation?

If they can’t complete an assignment, do they cop to it and/or seek help to get it done?

  1. Flexibility

When they articulate their needs and expectations, does it leave room for others to see themselves inside the frame, too?

Are they open to letting their agenda evolve as the collaboration unfolds?

Can they bend without breaking to accommodate the needs and preferences of others?

Do they cling to the tried-and-true, or are they willing to take risks?

Does stepping outside their personal bounds or the norms of their group spark genuine interest and curiosity?

9. Framing

Can they appreciate the big picture (forest) and the details (trees) at the same time?

Is context ever-present in the back of their mind while they work through more immediate issues?

Do they cast their insights and observations in a light that helps further understanding and advance the project?

Bolstering collaborator traits

So, nine traits. While more could be listed, these establish a basic foundation. The list might seem like a lot, but it’s really not a tall order. Most people have these abilities to varying degrees, whether they learned them at home, in school, through sports and other teams, or on the job. I’ve facilitated hundreds of groups and rarely have I come across someone who simply has no collaborative muscle to flex.

If you want to improve, or coach someone else to improve, do what we all do to develop skill. Practice. Find a group at your job, an association, a hobby, a volunteer opportunity. Focus on honing one or two skills at a time. Watch for people who do it well, study their actions and experiment with emulating what you’ve seen work.

Finally, there’s no fixed formula for collaboration. Every group is made up of people with agendas, hopes, expectations and personal assessments of the group’s challenges and opportunities. Becoming more versed in the styles and techniques of strong collaborators positions you to deliver greater value to any collaborative effort, and increase the probability of its success.