Culture Matters: 5 Tips for Facilitating Collaboration

Sharon Terry

As the CEO of Genetic Alliance, Ashoka Fellow Sharon Terry is determined to accelerate research, drug development, treatment, advocacy, and support for genetic disease. She’s found a way to dissolve the boundaries between disease-specific family foundations and advocacy organizations, universities, private companies, and policymakers so that thousands of organizations and leading stakeholders can work and collaborate outside of traditional silos. 

Genetic Alliance is doing by deploying a host of participant-centered tools—ranging from the world’s first advocacy-owned biobank to digital learning resources for individuals, families and communities.

What is the key to their success? Creating a culture of trust, transparency, and (you guessed it), empathy. Recently, Terry told us what conditions and practices are needed to facilitate effective cooperation, whether in the health field, or in a school, classroom, or office. 

She shared five tips we’d all do well to keep in mind.

1. Practice identification. The best way to be productive in collaboration is through a process that Genetic Alliance calls “identification,” according to Terry. Whether dealing with a team project or negotiating with partners, her staff consciously reframes their frustration and complaints in terms of their own contribution to the problem, rather than projecting blame onto others.  

When they want to tell someone “you’re being an obstacle,” they flip the question to say, “how is it true that I’m an obstacle?”  This allows a staff person to realize that they were about to externalize an issue that they can resolve.  Both sides thus become partners in solving the problem, rather than focusing on who’s at fault.

2. Invest your comfort. An experienced educator and former college chaplain, Terry believes that conflict and hurtful or defensive behavior arise from a common cause: fear. Behind the bullying behavior of a 12-year-old or the hostile swagger of an arrogant scientist is a fear of not feeling valued, says Terry, not being liked, or not being cared for.

Relinquishing that fear requires deeply personal and interpersonal work: a conscious choice to admit those fears and vulnerabilities, to acknowledge the unknown, and to lead with your weaknesses—a process Genetic Alliance staff calls “investing your comfort.” It requires trust, and a safe and whole environment.

“It’s not effective for us to talk about this stuff,” Terry said. “We have to be it.”

The good news? It takes just one person saying, “’Gosh, I feel disrespected and like no one cares here,’” Terry says. “People exclaim, ‘oh my God, you named the elephant in the middle of the room and you didn’t die or go up in smoke, so what if we all try to do the same thing?’”

3. Reward honesty. “Transparency” is everywhere these days, but too often, it seems it’s no more than a buzzword.

“We appreciate more the person who says, ‘I didn’t get that done last night and this didn’t happen,’ than someone who’s says, ‘yeah, well, kinda and here’s…maybe’,” Terry said. “There’s an appreciation in this culture for people who are honest.”

When the organization lost a quarter of its funding due to cuts in the federal budget, the senior management brought the staff together to admit they’d never faced a challenge of this level, and that mistakes would inevitably be made. To which the staff said, “we’re going to help you with it.” This approach has profound implications, whether applied to an office setting, or to a child who hasn’t done his homework.  

4. Forget boundaries. Too often, people or organizations whose interests are aligned find themselves competing with one another, whether for funding, recognition, or another form of reward. In the case of genetic disease, where many of the advocacy organizations consist of small family-run foundations, Terry realized that their clout could be far greater were they to join forces.

Recognizing, for example, that a new grant award for one organization means new funding for the field overall, Terry and the team have sought to break down the traditional boundaries that separate institutions: helping one another with grant applications, and celebrating the other’s victories and achievements.

The same can be said in classrooms or on the soccer field through what Ashoka Fellow and Positive Coaching Alliance founder Jim Thompson calls “triple-impact competitors”: athletes whose goals are to make themselves better, their team better, and ultimately, the game better. 

5. Make time for open space. Take one look at a successful classroom or a company with high employee satisfaction, and you’ll discover a simple truth: people thrive when they feel heard. And that requires carving out time to listen. 

Every Thursday, the staff at Genetic Alliance comes together for an Open Space meeting: one that’s completely agenda-free. The meeting entails one-part business, and one-part open check-in.

“We start with, ‘what are you guys working on? What do you need feedback on? What are you feeling good about, bad about?’,” Terry said. “And we dispense with that in half-an-hour.

“Then we spend an hour-and-a-half on open space, asking, ‘Where are you? What’s happening?’” When Lucy, the office dog died, the staff spent an hour-and-a-half talking about Lucy and sharing thoughts and reflections on mortality. These discussions often lead to acknowledging weaknesses, find a sense of “oneness,” and recommitting to the newly passion infused mission.

When time feels scarce and to-do lists loom large, carving out time for anything other than the most essential action items may seem frivolous. For teachers, taking the time to look beneath the surface of a child’s behavior or performance, and to listen to what’s going on at home or to understand their fears at school, is too often a luxury they do not have.

Yet Terry realized that allowing issues which affect team morale to simmer will only reduce productivity over the long-run, and are best dealt with upfront. “Google figured out that if they give everyone 10 percent time to think about stuff other than their job, they’ll come up with cool stuff. And they got Google Earth out of it, and Google Health,” she said.

“This is the same kind of thing for us: if we let people have the space to do this kind of work, then the work becomes a thousand times easier.”

Learn more about Ashoka's Empathy Initiative. Visit

Written by Lennon Flowers and Adam Horowitz of Ashoka's Empathy Initiative

This article was originally published on December 9, 2011
Related TopicsBusiness & Social Enterprise, HIV / AIDS / STDs, Medical research, Health & Fitness


Lennon Flowers and Adam Horowitz
Lennon Flowers and Adam Horowitz of Ashoka's Empathy Initiative

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