In this series, I’m discussing what I’ve learned about fostering synergy during major transformational initiatives.

If people have the willingness to forge their diverse perspectives into a synergistic alliance, the following sequence can be used to describe how they can work together to realize change. The four phases outlined are Interacting, Appreciative Understanding, Integrating, and Implementing.

Phase I: Interacting

A basic condition for synergy is that the key players must effectively interact with each other. If iron and nickel are never brought into contact with each other, the process of making steel is impossible. The same is true for people. For sponsors, agents, and targets; or practitioners and their clients to work synergistically, they must be able to communicate effectively.

People who attempt to work together, but who have little or no opportunity to interact, often generate a cyclically degenerating climate (see illustration below). In such a relationship, people tend to respond in one of four ways:

  • They become confused or angry due to normal misunderstandings that go unresolved.
  • They begin to blame others. Each party sees only positive characteristics in himself or herself, while seeing only negative characteristics in others.
  • They generate feelings of suspicion and alienation that lead to further isolation.
  • They feel increasingly hostile and reduce their interaction with the other party. This lowers the possibility of seeing things in a different way, which generates more misunderstanding.


To avoid this destructive cycle, people working together to implement change must communicate effectively. There are many methods for ensuring this happens; to list all of them would be more overwhelming than helpful. Instead, I’ll focus on the most basic conditions necessary for synergistic interaction.

There are four conditions necessary in the Interacting Phase:


Commit to the work involved.

Synergistic teamwork can require a great deal of time and energy. Each person engaged in the process must be prepared to commit the resources necessary to participate fully. To reinforce this commitment, the sponsor should set the expectation that synergistic participation is or will be a component of performance reviews. The sponsor can also demonstrate commitment by not assigning additional, distracting duties and by setting priorities among other projects so they don’t compete with the critical changes that must be executed.

Use direct, clear, consistent communication.

For the interaction that occurs to have optimal impact, the people involved must have the capacity to communicate effectively with each other (verbally, nonverbally, and in writing). There are three common errors in interpersonal communication during change that diminish synergistic capacity:

  • Indirection: Using a third party inappropriately to convey a message; or using vague, obscure language
  • Distortion: Not accurately perceiving what others are expressing or want because of predetermined ideas or stereotyping
  • Incongruence: Conveying verbal messages that are inconsistent with internal feelings or observable decisions/behaviors

It is important to reinforce that both willingness and ability are vital in determining a person’s prognosis for synergistic relationships. A person may have the ability to communicate directly and with little distortion, but choose not to do so because of perceived negative consequences for doing so. Likewise, a person or group may want desperately to communicate, but may not have the necessary skills to or they may be prohibited from communicating by organizational policies or procedures. In either case, this condition for synergy is not satisfied.

Actively listen to the facts and feelings expressed by others.

There are two facets to communications—the content of a message and the feelings or attitudes underlying the content. Both aspects are important because one without the other is only part of the intended message.

Although most people consider themselves to be good listeners, research has shown that the average untrained person listens at about 25 percent efficiency. It gets worse under the stress of change, where comprehension can drop to as low as 20% of what is said or written.

Realizing the importance of listening, synergistic relationships tend to utilize “active listening” skills, where the listener accepts a major portion of the responsibility for the accuracy of the messages received. He or she stays alert for the verbal and nonverbal signals that convey the feelings as well as the content of the message, and uses feedback methods to verify the message. When people believe they are listened to and understood, they are generally more willing to participate and offer their views, ideas, and new thoughts.

Communicate in a way that generates trust and credibility.

Trust among key players in change is important; those without it become defensive. This causes a wide range of symptoms such as poor listening, indirectness, high distortion, and incongruence in communication.

Credibility refers to the value one person or group attaches to another’s level of expertise and honesty. This is important when implementing change. Without credibility, collaborators are hesitant to act on each other’s information.

Trust and credibility, combined with interdependence, effective communication, and active listening constitute the necessary conditions for this first phase of the synergistic process.

Next: How to value and use the diversity that exists in working relationships.

Go to the beginning of the series.