The Four Barriers to Collaboration

As leaders, it is critical to analyze and emphasize the way everyone within your organization communicates, collaborates and coordinates. After working closely with businesses for years, we have recognized that collaboration is something nearly all organizations struggle with – regardless of size and circumstance.

Why do people find communication, collaboration and coordination so difficult? Answering this question requires considering a central paradox: individuals have conflicting urges. People want to communicate but also hoard knowledge. They want to work together but also ensure everyone is aware of their importance. They strive to coordinate, only to discover goals that are at odds with one another.

Every leader and employee alike has been asked to be a team player – and we know it’s critical to succeed in our careers – so, what stops us? In our experience, there are four main barriers to collaboration. It’s important to think critically about which barriers are most prevalent at your organization before determining how to tackle them.

  1. Hyper-focus on perception and self. We frequently see managers unwilling to accept advice or solutions from those ‘below’ them in the hierarchy (even though these are often the people with the most direct experience of the problem). Similarly, brilliant new initiatives may be dismissed because they come from ‘overpaid consultants’ or other outsiders. We see teams hiding problems because they don’t wish to be seen as ineffective or risk losing their bonuses. And we see a straight up unwillingness to speak to others because we are simply too focused on our own concerns to think of asking for help.
  2. Misplaced competitiveness. In some situations, people deliberately avoid helping their colleagues, even when asked. Although it sounds extreme, the attitude is actually not that unusual in companies where departments or teams are in competition for respect and resources. This process does not have to be malicious. Imagine yourself going head-to-head with another project to see who will get funding. You may have rapport with your colleagues, but right now you need to make it clear that their crazy augmented reality project is vague and risky compared to your fabulous project.
  3. Information overload. The bigger the company, the more geographically separated the business units and the more information there is, the harder it gets. Often when we add tools designed to help people find or receive information, we simply overwhelm them. (Side note: Communication is about more than words and requires both transmission and understanding – gesture and response. That is a key reason why enabling video on calls done remotely can add massive value to the experience.)
  4. Onboarding impatience. When someone new joins your team, you need to help them learn all sorts of things. The difficulty is that much of the knowledge they require is not so easy to hand over – it is tacit knowledge, the kind of understanding that comes from doing, through years of experience and a shared history. Many people fall into the trap of grumbling ‘oh, it’ll be quicker to do it myself’ and so never try to pass on their knowledge.

Each of these barriers is understandable and relatable, but that doesn’t mean they can’t or shouldn’t be resolved. Companies just need to choose the approach that works for them. For many organizations, a “command and control” style of management is a highly efficient way to handle large groups and coordinate their activity. There is clarity around who makes decisions and how communication flows. In this, “command and control” helps minimize the need to manage communication, collaboration and coordination. The opposite style is one that encourages a great degree of autonomy within teams or functions. This approach, in reality, can be quite chaotic, as each self-organizing team develops its own processes, ways of working and practices that don’t align across the board. These siloes can create massive coordination errors that harm the flow of the business and its ability to deliver value. That said, establishing a standard process, vocabulary and set of tools or metrics can help avoid such coordination issues.


No matter which approach you choose, overcoming barriers requires awareness and investment – so you must decide which challenges to focus on.