Current Science of Collaboration

As a trained STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) scientist with an above-average interest in collaboration, I would really like to understand the current science of collaboration. This post started with the question of whether or not collaboration comes naturally to gathered people. The search for an answer to this question took me on a wonderful intellectual journey whose findings I share with you here. To sum it up, if a group is gathered and presented with a task, then they will naturally work together to complete the task. However, working together is not necessarily the same as collaboration.

This post considers three key conclusions from my intellectual journey on whether or not collaboration comes naturally to gathered people. The first conclusion is the growing scientific evidence that humans are innately social beings. The second conclusion is the growing scientific basis for the power of human connection. The third conclusion is that working together is a necessary but insufficient condition for collaboration.

Let’s first consider the conclusion that humans are innately social beings. Daniel Haun of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany did a study ( comparing the responses of semi-free-ranging chimpanzees and of 3-year-old German kindergarteners to solving a problem. The study showed that the children cooperated to solve the problem 78% of the time compared to 58% of the time for the chimpanzees. Max concluded that the ‘…preference to do things together instead of alone differentiates humans from one of our closely related primate cousins’ and when ‘we know the underlying motivations of this tendency, we will have learned something new about human nature that differentiates it from chimpanzee nature.’ This study shows that when a group of people is presented with a task then they naturally work together to complete the task. Neuroscientists have provided further evidence that humans are innately social beings by finding the regions of the brain connected to social engagement. For example, neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman points out that our desire to connect is so strong that to the brain the pain of losing a loved one or social rejection looks the same as the pain from a physical injury or ailment ( Matthew also points out that we are born incapable of taking care of ourselves and it is the social connection of our care-giver to us that is key to our survival as infants until we mature to the point that we can take adequate care of ourselves. Finally, Matthew describes one finding as a ‘neural seesaw.’ Specifically, when we are thinking analytically, our capacity for social thinking goes down and vice versa. This means that when we are not thinking analytically, our default mode of thinking is social thinking. According to Matthew, this means that evolution has made the bet that the best thing for our survival when we are not engaged in analytical thinking is to see the world socially.

Now let’s consider the conclusion that there is power in human connection. From sociologist Sam Richards (, we learn that there is power that comes from knowing that others are facing what you are facing and have gotten through what you are going through. This is a healing and coping power that comes from understanding that you are part of a human race, whether or not the people who can empathize with your situation or in your presence or not. Returning to neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman, he gives the example that we learn better when we learn in order to teach someone else what we have learned. Matthew also points out that if you are socially motivated to learn, then the social thinking part of the brain can do it better than the analytical brain network that you typically activate when you try to memorize. An example of a social motivation to learn is to understand how you want to apply what you are learning to make the world a better place. Whether we are learning to be able to teach others or to be able to help others, human connection makes us smarter. Matthew also points out that research shows those leaders who have both strong social and strong analytical skills have a very high chance of being seen as great leaders. Matthew explains that social skills act as a multiplier because they enable leaders to activate the analytical skills of their followers and those around them. That is, human connection makes leaders more productive. Finally, Matthew points out that social connection is one of the best predictors of happiness and well-being. When I think of my happiest life moments, they are all social such as getting married, giving birth to my son, vacations with family, singing with friends, and so on.

Finally, let’s consider the conclusion that working together is a necessary but insufficient condition for collaboration. In an earlier post, I described Steven M. R. Covey’s coordination-collaboration continuum in which a team’s performance increases going from coordination at one extreme with cooperation in the middle and collaboration at the other extreme ( According to Merriam-Webster (, to collaborate is to work together in an intellectual endeavor. What really distinguishes collaboration from coordination or cooperation, is the presence of the proper cognitive context, social context, and structure. The proper cognitive context is a mix of perspectives and supporting focused content needed to achieve the worthy goal. The proper social context includes respecting the unarticulated values of others, engaging authentically with others, seeking contribution that makes a meaningful difference, and being open to change and opportunity (see The proper structure includes outcome-driven process that makes it easy for a group to achieve the desired outcomes and to create authentic value outside the collaboration. So while it is human nature to work together to complete physical tasks, it takes some extra work to collaborate on intellectual endeavors that lead to useful thinking and innovation.

Interestingly, neuroscientists have explained the ability to mirror the actions and thoughts of others by the presence of mirror neurons in the brain. To date, neuroscientists have identified the specific neurons involved in the mirroring of hand motions in monkeys. In addition, neuroscientists have located specific regions in the premotor cortex (PMC) that allow humans to understand and imitate hand movements. While neuroscientists have not yet isolated specific mirror neurons for pain or emotion (, evidence of their existence is accumulating.

If you would like to learn more about how the science of collaboration can be applied in your organization to improve performance and implement strategic initiatives, then contact Valerie Patrick at Fulcrum Connection LLC (412-742-9675 or Ask about the first-time client offer.