Building a Culture of Collaboration

Eight years ago, Family Shelter Service (FSS), a provider of services to victims of domestic violence in Wheaton, Illinois, hired a new Executive Director, Karen Kuchar. Kuchar oriented herself to the organization by first listening and gathering information from the staff and board members. She discovered a lack of teamwork and collaboration in an organization that was undergoing a transition.

Over the next several years, Kuchar and the leadership team set about transforming the culture to one that was more collaborative and productive. FSS has now realized great success by implementing strategies to improve communication and collaborative decision-making; emphasizing the professional development of all staff; and educating staff about how to better manage conflict.

Improving Communication and Collaboration

In collaboration with staff, Kuchar began hosting organization-wide meetings to hear what employees identified as the agency’s challenges and opportunities. One result of these early meetings was the decision to work toward understanding the diverse perspectives within teams. Through a series of assessments and group exercises, they developed a new awareness and understanding of the different styles and strengths that individuals brought to the team.

The leadership team also designed processes to obtain staff’s input on how they delivered their services. “We used the image of a target to discuss our clients and their fit in our current programs. We realized our clients were struggling with a wide range of issues, and that we needed to be more creative about the ways we addressed these concerns. We also looked at concrete work systems and, with assistance, computerized a client data base,” Kuchar says. “This process is now universal using one format that is accessible to all across three locations. Different staff members can use the same program and have the same criteria for entering information.”

Emphasizing Professional Development

Most staff had a real dedication to the agency’s mission; however, some believed that they were not paid enough and worked too many hours. While committed to working with clients, some viewed requests for accountability measures as a waste of time. Consequently, some of these employees adopted an attitude in which they felt entitled to perform their job in the manner they desired, regardless of the organization’s needs.

To remedy this, they designed a comprehensive career development process. “We discovered that the employees were burnt out but couldn’t or didn’t want to admit it,” says Kuchar. “This helped give us a language to remedy the problem and be on common ground. We asked employees: ‘What’s shifted about what you need?’ and ‘How can we help you get there?’ For instance, an employee may now need to know Spanish to communicate with victims, so we could help him or her learn the language through a course.”

To encourage employees to think more systemically, they also created a dialogue between employees and leadership about the organization’s needs and goals. As employees considered how their needs aligned, or did not align, with the organization, this process moved the entire conversation about job expectations to a higher level. Subsequently, employees came to understand how their behavior and decisions impacted the organization’s success.

Managing Conflict

All workplaces experience conflict – the trick is to manage it constructively. Managing conflict in a direct service environment is even more of a challenge as there are layers of conflict between clients living in shelter, between clients and staff and among staff themselves. This reality led the leadership team to embark upon a multi-year initiative aimed at building greater system-wide competence in conflict management.

According to Director of Volunteers and Facilities Manager Robbie MacRoy, who is a member of FSS’s Conflict Resolution Committee, “Our first idea was to turn everyone into their own conflict resolution coach,” she says. “We created a manual for people to deal with everyday issues and help them develop conflict resolution skills. We also held seminars that emphasized this learning by focusing on what body language might signal a conflict and did role playing to show instances where conflicts could emerge.”

MacRoy says the results of incorporating the conflict resolution manual and seminars into FSS’s workplace culture include conversations among workers increasingly showing conflict resolution vocabulary. In other words, shelter employees have tended to be solution-oriented before they interact with other employees. “I wasn’t a ‘run to the manual’ kind of person, and even I do that now,” MacRoy says.


Over several years, the organization’s culture was transformed:

# turnover of staff decreased,
# increased professional development helped better equip employees to deal with the diverse challenges associated with their clients, which, in turn, improved services and expanded FSS’s programs,
# the ability to attract qualified staff increased,
# greater program efficiencies were realized by strategic use of staff time,
# a maturation of staff, who are now more able to communicate honestly and directly, occurred, and
# higher-skilled staff are better able to manage conflict and reach decisions through collaboration.

“All of this work has really paid off for us,” says Kuchar. “When people are excited about their work it really shows. These efforts improved our delivery of services and fostered an atmosphere of creative program development.”

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