3 Psychological Barriers to Creative Collaboration

New research shows successful creative collaboration is no accident.

Posted Jul 31, 2018

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While a recent study shows that optimal solitude and social withdrawal can boost a person’s creativity, potent ideas rarely result from the work of a sole creative genius. That much we agree upon now, thanks in part to recent studies on social creativity—the dynamic of how successful, artful collaboration works in the world.

I discussed the characteristics of a successful collaboration and the necessity of solitude as a critical part of the process recently on the Tracking Wonder podcast, with mindfulness teacher and author Leo Babauta, and award-winning author, speaker and business consultant Pam Slim. The takeaway was that when people collaborate with one another plus maintain a deep connection with the world around them, they can contribute much more successfully to advancing influential ideas.

So, if you bring together a group of brilliant minds to solve an entrepreneurial problem or advance a project, you’re bound to get more and better ideas, right?

Not necessarily.

Just how it is that strong, creative minds work effectively still eludes even the most robust teams and committed leaders. It turns out that subtle psychological barriers inhibit how people pool their cognitive resources to conceive a novel, useful solution—and then execute it successfully.

Fertile Collaboration Isn’t An Accident

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There is more to fertile collaboration than pushing creatives together and hoping ideas take flight.

In the Forbes’s article “What Do Eric Clapton And Chickens Have In Common, And Why Supergroups Rarely Live Up To Expectations," Ruth Blatt, who writes about the intersections of rock “super groups” and entrepreneurship, explores the idea that more stars do not necessarily translate into better performance.

In fact, Blatt suggests, assuming that combining the efforts of five individual talents produces better results than the sum of their five individual contributions fails to consider the losses that come from egos, quirks, overconfidence, sense of entitlement, and the expectation to lead that stars bring to the team.

Assuming you can just put together a bunch of talented people to create successful collaboration also overlooks the skills needed to build synergy on a team.

So how do we contribute optimally in collaboration, for mutual benefit?

1. Open Up, Don’t Size Up

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We’re wired to hear what we want to hear. We’re also wired to hear one another in biased ways, and we often fail to appreciate the merits in an unfamiliar or threatening idea. These nearly unconscious biases can keep you from recognizing the potential value in someone else’s idea. Bias in collaboration, it turns out, can be costly to business.

Confirmation bias: Coined by Peter Wason in 1960, confirmation bias refers to our human tendency to favor ideas and information that confirm our pre-existing beliefs and desires. Confirmation bias inhibits creative collaboration in a few subtle ways.

When you ask for input: Sometimes a team member or leader might ask for novel solutions to a problem and yet unconsciously shut down any idea that does not confirm what she wanted to hear or what makes her comfortable.

When you ask for input from certain people: Most of us form quick pre-judgmental biases toward other people. Those judgments and assumptions of others can harden with more experience with certain team members. Much of your unconscious mind might be efficiently sizing up another team member’s ideas without giving the idea full and open consideration.

The results of a study at the University of Chicago and Center for Talent Innovation show the costs of this unchecked bias. Those workers who feel that unchecked bias say they are three times more likely to withhold ideas and marketing solutions, and they are three times as likely to be disengaged.

We cannot remove biases—nor is it the goal to eliminate our functions to discern ideas or even to discern character. Yet, we can learn to dissolve biases temporarily.

Such bias dissolution is in fact one of the key functions of our human experience of wonder. Wonder is the singular experience when even for a fleeting moment our biased ways of seeing, relating, and creating dissolve so we can see again what is true, real, and beautiful. Obviously dissolving biases temporarily requires extensive initial effort followed by training, practice, and patience.

Yet, in my work with groups and teams, I have found a simple way to heighten collaborators’ awareness of their biases toward one another and toward new ideas. I ask them to practice internally repeating, “Open Up. Don’t Size Up.” It turns out that this mindset shift is especially powerful for introverted employees and collaborators who often feel reticent and guarded in open collaboration.

A manager for a social marketing startup in Austin reported that this practice and others has helped him keep the startup culture not only agile but creatively open. He also shared the practice with his fellow managers, who often feel compelled to direct more than to listen. This practice gives them a private way to listen with full receptivity to team members—which is essential to keep employees and team members truly engaged.

Setting aside your own expertise and professional ego can stop you from negating the positive impact of creative collaboration. Imagine the space between you and your collaborator as a continuum of ideas, filled with new potential. It’s up to you to keep that continuum open and fertile with possibility. What may seem, at first, like a completely random idea may give your business its next breakthrough.

Remember, when you feel your innate biases shutting you down from listening to another idea, rather than falling into resistance to newness, remind yourself to “open up instead of size up.”

2. Focus on Ideas, not Yourself

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Focusing on yourself is a barrier to effective collaboration.

I have the good fortune to spend much of my week talking with interesting people working on astonishing projects, each with their own points of view and methods. Much of the time in collaboration, I have to remind myself to stay out of the way of my client collaborative conversations. Our collaborative conversations are rich with meaning and purpose.

This kind of substantial conversation has also been objectively proven to make people happier. In a study in 2010, psychologist Matthias Mehl and his team used unobtrusive recording technology to “eavesdrop” on conversation patterns. Mehl concluded that happier participants spend 70% more time talking than unhappy participants and that they spend more time having substantial conversations.

The takeaway here is the idea of substantial conversation, rather than small talk.

Nothing shuts down a good flow conversation that could lead to great ideas better than bragging, self-analyzing, or otherwise redirecting the topic back to yourself.

When you notice your ego begging for attention, step back and remember the big idea, the project, the creative problem at hand. Let wonder in.

3. Connect Outside Your Field & Culture

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It turns out that hanging around “like-minded” people could be a significant barrier to innovative collaboration. Groupthink is a form of bias originally coined in the 1950s that arose out of George Orwell’s warnings in his novel 1984 and its references to “doublethink.”  The research has since been applied to entrepreneurial and business settings that point to similar warnings: When a group or team or entire work culture becomes so amiable and polite, they can become loyal simply to the group cohesion instead of to outside, disruptive ideas. Think of individual confirmation bias applying to a whole group or work culture—only with more potentially dire consequences.

Benjamin Jones, a strategy professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University has highlighted that a major value in collaboration comes from the fact that our individual knowledge base is becoming more and more specialized. While expertise is integral to your success, it can also limit scope.

This is an exciting field of study when it comes to diversity, creativity, and innovation in the workplace. A 2018 study found that:

Diversity training reduces the negative consequences of team diversity and offer practical insights into the effectiveness of diversity management and the ways to create a diverse and inclusive workplace. The study should help human resource professionals to identify human resources strategies that stimulate an inclusive environment and leverage the benefits associated with higher levels of diversity. (Chow, 2018)

Creative habitats thrive on idea-diversity the way environmental habits thrive on eco-diversity. Both cognitive diversity and cultural diversity among team collaborators can boost the generation and execution of novel, useful solutions.

When Steve Jobs was the CEO at Pixar, he cared so much about creating an environment conducive to collaborative conversation that he specifically designed the architecture of the workplace to ensure that unlikely conversations could happen spontaneously. This intentionality about making sure that artists spoke with coders, or musicians spoke with screenwriters and accountants, meant that people could bump into each other in random ways to spark ideas.

By creating an environment where difference and diversity are respected and encouraged, creativity can be effectively leveraged.

What might you learn if you talked with people outside of your area of knowledge? What could your team learn if they received input from people not part of their own ethnic background and also not immersed in the same tight work culture?

Practice asking questions and learning about other points of view. Most great ideas are not born out of nothing; several great ideas are born out of paying attention and out of opening up to the diversity of experiences around us.


Blatt, R. (2013, August 13). What Do Eric Clapton And Chickens Have In Common, And Why Supergroups Rarely Live Up To Expectations. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/ruthblatt/2013/08/12/what-do-eric-clapton-and-chickens-have-in-common-and-why-supergroups-rarely-live-up-to-expectations/#5a30d7d4788f

Bowker, J. C., Stotsky, M. T., & Etkin, R. G. (2017). How BIS/BAS and psycho-behavioral variables distinguish between social withdrawal subtypes during emerging adulthood. Personality and Individual Differences, 119, 283-288. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2017.07.043

Chow, I. H. (2018). Cognitive diversity and creativity in teams: The mediating roles of team learning and inclusion. Chinese Management Studies, 12(2), 369-383. doi:10.1108/cms-09-2017-0262

D'Onfro, J. (2015, March 20). Steve Jobs had a crazy idea for Pixar's office to force people to talk more. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/steve-jobs-designing-pixar-office-2015-3?r=US&IR=T

Davis, J. (2017, December 27). Finding Optimal Solitude in an Age of Collaboration. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/tracking-wonder/201712/finding-optimal-solitude-in-age-collaboration

Davis, J., Babauta, L., & Slim, P. (2018, June 07). Tracking Wonder Podcast Episode 005: The Tension Between Optimal Collaboration vs Solitude with Pam Slim and Leo Babauta. Retrieved from https://trackingwonder.com/podcast/episode-005/

Jones, B. F. (2017, September 6). The Science Behind the Growing Importance of Collaboration. Retrieved from https://insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu/article/the-science-behind-the-growing-importance-of-collaboration

Mehl, M. R., Vazire, S., Holleran, S. E., & Clark, C. S. (2010). Eavesdropping on Happiness: Well-being is Related to Having Less Small Talk and More Substantive Conversations. Psychological Science, 21(4), 539-541. doi:10.1177/0956797610362675