Vanishing Mental Barriers that Limit True Collaboration

Bill Fox
Feb 14, 2021
6 min read

Table of Contents

Masa K. Maeda: Lean-Agile Executive Coach. Connect with Masa on LinkedIn.


Forward Thinking Workplaces is a global narrative that's uncovering exciting new perspectives to help you succeed and be a forward-thinking leader and workplace in the 21st century.

Check out our upcoming Events page or visit billfox.co to learn more.


How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?

Masa: There are some factors that are very important. I think that we should begin thinking about the work environment. There are what I call the three environments—Static, Dynamic, and Self. The Static environment is the actual physical space. It’s the office, the building itself, how cubicles are arranged, how the meeting rooms are set up, and so on.

Basically, what we want is to make sure that the physical aspect of the workplace makes it easy for people to interact and truly collaborate to get the value-added work done better and more economically. There are different ways to do this such as not having permanent seats or cubicles anymore. There are lockers where they can put their belongings. Depending on the work or project they are engaged in, they get together and find a suitable space where they can effectively add value. This works better than having a pre-assigned space for each person because now they have the freedom to move around and collaborate. A very open and healthy physical environment is very important to team effectiveness and the organization’s economy.

The Dynamic environment is the team itself. Something I advocate very strongly is to change the concept of the team to be all the people involved in the project to any extent instead of only those who build the product or service and their direct managers. The members of a Dynamic team could come from the finance department, the legal department, marketing, engineering, science, and so on.

What I advocate is that silos disappear. The moment we change that perspective all mental barriers that limit true collaboration vanish. It becomes a lot easier for everybody to work together towards the common goal of creating something amazing. This also implies that we are going to get rid of titles and levels. It’s just one team working together and making things happen.

What I advocate is that silos disappear. The moment we change that perspective all mental barriers that limit true collaboration vanish.

The Self-environment is the individual person. So, I Masa, for example, have to be in balance with myself to be able to do my job better. What that means is that I should be able to have some space and time to myself within the Static and Dynamic environments, and outside the work environment. Time for me to relax, to introspect, to gain motivation, and so on. We should be allowed some amount of time every day at work to do that. To isolate from everybody else and spend 10 or 20 minutes just relaxing, doing some meditation, yoga, internal martial art, or any other kind of self-health activity.

I’m part Japanese and have practiced internal martial arts (those focused more on health than self-defense) most of my life. I also did Zen meditation at 6:00 AM every morning at a Buddhist temple when I lived in Japan. Being in good mental and physical shape is good not only for oneself but for the business. So, those three environments should always be considered as the work environment.

Another aspect to consider is intrinsic motivation in the knowledge work environment. The coolest stuff out there is done by people who truly believe in what they are doing.

The last aspect to point out is—don’t micromanage.

What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?

Masa: The Self-environment comes into play again here. In addition to that, adding value through participative collaboration—using tools and techniques that make it easy for people to work together—to get more work done with better quality. Having people in isolation at their cubicles to eventually try to integrate what each person did on their own isn’t nearly as effective. Most people are at their best way they work in teams. A lot is missed when someone doesn’t interact with the rest of the team, and therefore, there’s rework, poor quality, delays, and so on.

A lot is missed when someone doesn’t interact with the rest of the team, and therefore, there’s rework, poor quality, delays, and so on.

It is very difficult to know the real state of a project that’s done the traditional way due to their silo approach.  Then towards the end of the life-cycle during integration, the real state becomes clear and the can of worms opens. The lack of understanding of the real state of a project affects performance, efficiency, and motivation. When people collaborate and learn from each other, the result is much richer and is reflected in increased efficiency. In the end, the amount of value that is created by each person and by the team is much higher when true collaboration happens.

To increase employees' attention we, leaders, have to improve the way we listen and observe. I co-active coach using three levels of listening. We listen at Level 1 when we hear what we want to hear and not what the person is saying. We listen at Level 2 when we pay attention and capture what the other person is saying. And Level 3 is the same as Level 2 but also considers the context within which the person is saying things. Level 3 is the mature level of listening. I extended the concept to include observation and invite leaders to also observe at Level 3. Once we achieve it, it becomes easier to help our employees listen and observe at Level 3.

The last point I want to make regarding this question is that leading is a way of being and guiding whereas managing is a role. Employees need leaders, not managers.

What do people really lack and long for at work?

Masa: I think most people long for the freedom to be able to grow and express themselves. When people approach me, there comes a moment when they get comfortable and relate things that are rather personal. I can’t remember one customer where there wasn’t at least one person who came to me in frustration and said “I’ve been doing the same thing for years and I’m bored and frustrated” or “I don’t have the opportunity to think, I just execute.”

I can’t remember one customer where there wasn’t at least one person who came to me in frustration and said “I’ve been doing the same thing for years and I’m bored and frustrated” or “I don’t have the opportunity to think, I just execute.

The freedom to grow and express themselves I think is at the top of the list. A close second is they want to be trusted and respected by their leaders. For this to happen it is necessary that leaders gave them the opportunity to earn that trust and respect. This is part of human nature. We are professionals, and we want to do our work in the best possible way. We want to contribute to business success. We want to be part of that success.

What is the most important question leaders should be asking employees?

Masa: Are you happy here? If I as a leader or manager don’t have happy people, then something is very wrong. But if I have a good work environment, I trust them. I don’t micromanage. They are motivated, and if there’s a good collaboration, they are going to be happy here. That’s very important.

Several years ago, I was working with a customer when an employee approached me who said, “Masa, please don’t share this with my manager. I got a job offer that increases my salary by 20% (which is really nice), but I won’t accept it because if I do I’ll go back to the nightmares we don’t have here. So, I’d rather stay here where I’m happier, stress-free, and where I can go back to my family.”

What is the most important question employees should be asking leaders?

Masa: Are our customers happy with the value we deliver? This question implies a lot. It implies quality, truly understanding the customer’s need, and creating a true solution that satisfies them.

What is the most important question we can ask ourselves?

Masa: I was struggling with two questions, so I’m going to cover both. One question is, “What can I do to make everyone successful?” It has to do with making sure customers get the value they need to accomplish something. It has to do with our stakeholders, our employees, our providers, and also our stockholders.

It is very important that we and our stockholders understand that it’s just not about the money and the stock value.

It is about the right balance between healthy economic growth and being able to make everyone successful.

To make our customers happy, to make our employees happy, there has to be a balance between all that because otherwise, the growth won’t persist.

The second question is, “Am I truly happy?” If I as a leader am not truly happy then how good of a leader can I be? How could I be able to achieve what we’ve talked about so far? None of that will happen if I’m not in balance.

Join the narrative.

Get weekly updates with exciting new perspectives and questions you need to succeed in the 21st century.

Oops! There was an error sending the email, please try again.

Awesome! Now check your inbox and click the link to confirm your subscription.