It’s 8.25am. The train that I’m travelling on has almost reached its final destination, but has halted just outside the station. It’s looking likely that we’ll miss our scheduled arrival time by a few minutes.

“I apologise for the delay to your journey this morning, but the signaller at the station has, for some reason, decided to stop this train from entering the platform”.

Commuters around me sigh, before returning to their morning paper, e-mails or LinkedIn accounts. More delays, justified by a shift of blame from one part of the process to another.

This scenario isn’t specific to the morning commute. When things go wrong, the reason is often attributed to the actions of others, chance or circumstance.

This can be explained by the psychological phenomenon ‘self-serving attribution bias’. Our bias makes us more likely to connect positive outcomes to our internal disposition and negative outcomes to factors beyond our control. For example, we’re more likely to attribute a new business win to the quality of our presentation pitch, and a loss to the current financial climate or a client’s poor sense of value. It’s a natural protection mechanism designed to maintain our personal confidence.

Self-serving attribution bias explains the proverb: “A bad workman always blames his tools”. It’s also a barrier to effective collaboration and teamwork, which can impact overall performance (DeChurch, 2010). And when the interpersonal distance between colleagues is greater, the likelihood of a blame culture for negative outcomes increases (Walther, & Bazarova, 2007).

This can be particularly destructive within remote teams, or in franchise organisations where employees may experience greater distance between their role and the objectives of the parent company.

Take the morning commute example. The train driver may have been well-intentioned, endeavouring to keep the customers regularly updated. However, the explanation given served no real benefit to passengers. Had the train driver taken responsibility for the delay on behalf of the wider transport network in which they operated – apologising for the delays while the station was refurbished in order to offer a much improved customer travelling experience – passenger perceptions may have been quite different.

We see similar situations across industry sectors, where a lack of clear alignment and connection between functions, freelancers and franchises results in silo working and a culture of blame over collaboration. While each group may believe that they are delivering the best possible customer service, client experience or business outcomes, they may in fact be missing the bigger picture.

High-performing organisations demonstrate effective cross-group working in order to deliver bigger, better results. And as the growth of virtual working, use of freelance resource and re-structuring of organisations continue, the need to break down the barriers to collaboration becomes increasingly important.

Creating a culture of collaboration provides a clear competitive advantage. It’s the glue holding the organisations together, inspiring loyalty in employees and encouraging teamwork. This is particularly important within complex organisations, and when high-performance delivery requires many different parts of the system to work together in harmony.

Culture change isn’t easy, but it can be achieved. It also won’t happen overnight. Organisations embarking on this journey have to be committed to making change happen step by step, which requires a shift in attitudes and behaviours over time. This commitment must start at the top.

Here are six factors contributing to the success of a collaborative culture:

Strong leadership

What leaders do and say influences an organisation’s culture. Leaders must take responsibility for setting performance expectations and then consistently role model the collaborative behaviours that will help to deliver top results. They must also endlessly share a compelling story outlining the need for continued collaboration.

Passion towards purpose

A collaborative culture should bind people together through belief in a shared purpose. Gaining collective commitment towards a common mission and vision focuses employees on the same end goal, clearly articulating how all the pieces of the puzzle come together to deliver the bigger picture objectives.

Shared values and behaviours

In order to embed the values and behaviours that support collaboration and teamwork, organisations must firstly break existing habits linked to silo working and individual thinking. Starting by raising awareness of the need for change, organisations must continually stretch employees outside of their comfort zone by encouraging new thinking and supporting the application of new ideas. Over time, the organisation should start to live and breathe these values and behaviours in everything it does.

Clear direction and objectives

To support behavioural change, leaders must paint a clear and consistent picture outlining the need for collaboration in order to gain cross-group alignment. This includes ensuring alignment at the leadership level. Holding individuals accountable for the delivery of shared objectives has also been found to reduce the occurrence of self-serving behaviours (Pitesa & Thau, 2013).

Open and honest communication

Building a collaborative culture requires open and honest communication across the organisation. Keeping communication channels open up and across the business ensures that key messages are consistently shared and collective successes are continually recognised and celebrated. It also encourages a feedback culture where constructive comments from across the organisation are readily accepted as a means of continually improving the quality of collective outputs.

External client focus

Focusing energy on understanding customers and evaluating competitors, rather than internal politics, keeps people motivated towards achieving the bigger picture objectives and engaged in the shared purpose. Internal communications should also outline the external impact employees are working together to achieve.

What else have you seen support in the growth of a collaborative culture? Please share your thoughts and experiences with us.



  • DeChurch, L.A. (2010). The cognitive underpinnings of effective teamwork: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95 (1), 32 – 53.
  • Pitesa, M. & Thau, S. (2013). Masters of the Universe: How Power and Accountability Influence Self-Serving Decisions Under Moral Hazard. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98 (3), 550 – 558.
  • Walther, J.B. & Bazarova, N.N. (2007). Misattribution in virtual groups: the effects of member distribution on self-serving bias and partner blame. Human Communication Research, 33 (1), 1 – 26.

About the Author:

Jayne Ruff Business Psychologist and Partner at ChangingPoint. For more information on ChangingPoint, please contact