Use psychology to build better collaborations

+ By embracing psychological testing right at the start of a project, teams can establish understanding, respect and better communication throughout a project.

With the increasing need to meet emerging collaboration standards like BS11000, having a defined process for successful communication on large joint ventures or partnerships is vital. To aid this process I believe teams should adopt the practical application of psychological theory because it helps all parties to understand and overcome the challenges of partnering, forming joint ventures and alliancing by seeing these issues through the eyes of those that matter most – the team members themselves.

There is no escaping the fact that when you enter a new partnership there are potential cultural differences to overcome, often magnified by the parties’ differing objectives. Designing a harmonious collaboration can be hard, particularly if key people start off on the wrong foot with each other.  

Sometimes you may find that an organisation has a predisposition to hiring a particular personality type, possibly the polar opposite to the default style of the partnering company. By introducing a psychological lens before teams get into a project’s core work, these potential divisions can be minimised, and insights that foster a ‘One Team Approach’ and a genuinely badge-less culture can be generated and shared. This awareness and encouragement of open, respectful and trusting communication is key to a project’s long-term success.  

The process of embedding collaboration must start as early as possible, ideally in the bid stage. The leadership team should then undertake psychometric testing prior to team selection, establishing the leaders’ default personalities and working styles. Once these styles are recognised and understood, cohesion can build within the group. And by committing to be role models, leaders can build the required integrity and respect within the new combined project team

Creative and participatory activities can help explain and overcome these psychological issues. At Arup we have used ‘forum theatre’ techniques to achieve this. In these sessions team members must respond to dramatised work scenarios by taking on roles with differing viewpoints, building an understanding of others’ reasoning, perspectives and behaviour. 

As a collaboration consultant, one workshop exercise I use explores the different aspects of communication, exploring the ‘music’ (tone of voice when talking), the ‘dance’ (body language), ‘the words’ (language, context) and the ‘eyes’ (the internal thoughts we magnify). The workshop provides powerful insights into how we actually communicate with each other and promotes emotional intelligence between team members.

In the UK Arup is working in a successful joint venture with Amey on the UK’s Smart Motorways programme. By employing in-house business psychologists the joint venture has fostered a shared culture where everyone is known as AmeyArup, there’s a really positive team spirit and a shared sense that development and team performance are truly valued.

With design and engineering increasingly defined by larger and more complex projects, initiatives like these, that foster positive communication and working between delivery organisations will only become more and more important. 

If you have encountered any great practices or other examples of psychologically insightful working please share them in the comments below.