Small Business Owners: How to Build and Sustain a Collaborative Workplace

When you envision your small business five years from now, what do you see? Whether your business has two or 50 employees, your vision more than likely includes growth. A proven pathway to sustainable business growth is through effective collaboration – people working well together – for mutual success.

Collaborative Workplace Benefits

Positive, collaborative workplaces are an important driver for success. Positive workplaces read into virtually all business performance metrics:

  • lower health care costs and absenteeism
  • higher productivity
  • greater return on financial investment
  • better client/customer satisfaction
  • higher creativity
  • increased professionalism
  • lower turnover
  • easier recruitment

Principles For Leading a Collaborative Workplace

Working well with others is good for business. At the heart of working well together is strong leadership and healthy relationships. Here are ten leadership principles for the small business owner, committed to finding business success through collaboration:

  • Take ownership; be accountable, for the behaviours in your workplace. Walk the talk.
  • Manage for quality interactions and relationships as much as results and profits. Chris Edmonds, in his book The Culture Engine, calls this “50:50 leadership”.
  • Promote constructive behaviours that de-escalate conflict. Conflict is inevitable. How one responds to it, isn’t.
  • Measure people on their behaviours, how well they align with your core values. Behaviours bring values to life.
  • Embed constructive behaviours into your HR processes. As you grow your business, put your values on display, in your hiring, assessment and development processes.
  • Do not tolerate bad behaviour. Bad behaviour, left unchecked, turns a workplace toxic.
  • Make it safe, for open communication. Safety, physical and psychological, is required before authentic conversation can take place.
  • Build interpersonal skills competency. Your customers, peers, community, family, and friends will thank you.
  • Get everyone on the same page. Ensure everyone, especially those in charge, understand why we are doing what we’re doing.
  • Attend to what people truly want. In today’s workplace, ethical and social priorities are often as important as financial priorities.

Three Collaboration Strategies to Consider

Increase Self-Awareness

Collaboration begins with you. Know your own behaviours. This, of course, applies to all your employees. The greatest virtue required for effective teamwork, collaboration, is humility (Patrick Lencioni, in The Ideal Team Player). Whenever I get triggered by someone else’s behaviour, I remind myself to look in the mirror. Invariably, it dawns on me that I am the one who could be acting differently. Self-assessment instruments can help in the self-discovery process.

Focus on “Soft Skills”

When you are self-employed or working independently, as an employee of a small business, soft skills; e.g., communication and collaboration, are vital. After all, you are your business. You are the face and character of your business, good or bad. Soft skills will help you scale your business, one positive interaction and relationship at a time.

Make Intentions Clear

Ensure your business’ vision, mission, and values statements clearly articulate the kinds of behaviour you want and expect. For each of your core values, define 3 or 4 expected behaviours. For example; if “mutual respect” is a core value, one of your expected behaviours can be, “I show respect to co-workers and customers by listening without interrupting”. You can measure that!

Building and sustaining a culture of collaboration enhances employee engagement and loyalty, workplace productivity, and customer service. It helps you gain a strategic advantage, and grow your business.

[Ben Ziegler is a collaboration and conflict management specialist serving SMEs, nonprofits, and local governments. Contact Ben.]


  1. So important not to tolerate the bad behavior. If you address the behavior as soon as you notice it there is hope of stopping it in it’s boots.

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