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How to Build Strong Collaborations (Even When Your Team Can’t Stand Each Other)

This article was based on episode 252 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Members of the Modern Manager community get two months of Fast Forward membership for free. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.

Collaboration is necessary when you’re in a team, and when done well, it unleashes exponential potential for what humans can accomplish. But sometimes, personality clashes or mounting tensions can make it feel almost unbearable. If your team depends on but doesn’t trust each other, they’re actually in a state of what social psychologist Deb Mashek calls “collabor(hate)” or collaborative hate.

Deb helps business leaders navigate relationships. An experienced business advisor, professor, and nonprofit executive, she has also been an invited speaker on collaboration and viewpoint diversity at leading organizations including the United Nations and the American Psychological Association. Deb is the international bestselling author of Collabor(h)ate. She shares here how to diagnose your team’s collaboration level and the essential steps to (re)building a strong collaborative environment.


Collaboration is a popular buzzword that we apply to all sorts of things. Deb defines it simply as two or more people intentionally working together to advance a shared goal. That could mean something as simple as collaborating on a lunch order, or as complex as figuring out a client deliverable.

The trick is to know what successful collaboration looks like. Successful collaboration is split into two parts; process and product. Successful product means achieving our outcomes and meeting deadlines, while a successful process means engaging well with a wide range of people, making space for diverse voices, giving feedback in a timely and constructive manner, and fostering the appropriate level of relationships.


To understand where your team is at, Deb developed the Mashek Matrix. It divides possibilities for collaboration effectiveness into four quadrants: low relationship quality and low interdependence, low relationship quality and high interdependence, high relationship quality and low interdependence, and high relationship quality and high interdependence.

Let’s start with the best case scenario. If your team has a high relationship quality and high interdependence, congratulations! You’ve reached the incredible rainbows and unicorns team performance level that any manager would dream of. Your team is constantly working together and loves each other. You’re squarely in the zone of CollaborGREAT!

If your team has a high relationship quality but low interdependence, they enjoy spending time with each other and have good rapport, but don’t really know how to lean in on each other to complement their needs and strengths. Such teams often take a “divide and conquer” approach. If this is your team, you’re sitting in the zone of High Potential. Consider ways in which you can build greater interdependence that will benefit everyone involved.

Teams with a low relationship quality and low interdependence are called Emerging. While some teams may exist here, it’s often a place teams visit when they’ve had a shift in composition. When a new team member is onboarding, they don’t know each other well or how they can best collaborate. If this is your team, people first need to build their relationship quality. This can happen through intentional casual interactions or more purposeful team-building activities. If someone new has joined, incorporate opportunities for the new person to get to know their fellow team members as part of their onboarding. Consider providing a stipend for in-person or Zoom lunch dates with colleagues so they spend time in a casual setting learning more about each other.

Lastly, if your team has low relationship quality and high interdependence, that’s when you’re really in difficult waters of Collabor(h)ate. Your team works together often but can’t stand each other. This can feel suffocating for team members and make work a dreaded chore.


If you find yourself in a collaborative hate situation, never fear! There is hope. Just like with a strained marriage, the first step is to create distance. Figure out ways to separate the warring colleagues from each other. You can do this by changing the frequency of their interactions, the strength of their interactions, the intensity of influence each other’s actions have on one another, or the diversity of their interactions. Consider ways to lessen the amount of meetings they need to be involved in together, or how many different things they need to work on collaboratively. By allowing them each more distance and independence, you’ve created an opening for them to build a more positive regard for what the other is doing from a safe vantage point.

Build Up That Relationship Quality

With relationships that need to be pumped up, figure out ways for people to get to know each other. Reciprocal conversations of self-disclosure always lend towards creating a sense of confidence and closeness. Advise colleagues to do any extra act of generosity to lower friction. Make sure that expectations are honored, and that important conversations are had whenever resources or expectations have shifted so that everyone comes to the table feeling able to succeed. Embracing clear collaborative team norms does wonders for a robust sense of psychological safety and connection.

Check In With How People Feel About Each Other

Sometimes managers are clueless to how teammates feel about each other. While everything may look good on the surface, our team members are quietly burning on the inside. Set aside time during your one on ones to check in on how your team members feel about the quality of their relationships at work. Ask them to share with you their favorite and least favorite collaborators. This can give you a sense of overall communal connections and what each employee is in need of from their colleagues.

The truth is that our relationships at work really do matter. When we have strong relationships, we have lower rates of depression and anxiety. On a team level, science shows that the higher the relationship quality on a team, the higher the job satisfaction. Therefore, building relationships and interdependence is essential for any high performing team. If you see your team struggling to build those bonds, don’t be afraid to step in. A manager’s touch can alter a team from collabor(h)ate to collaborGREAT. Your team can get a ton done and have fun doing it too!


Get a recording of Deb’s 1-Hour Workshop on Deep Collaboration when you become a member of the Modern Manager community at

This article was based on episode 252 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.




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