You might have hated group work in college, but your professors might have been on to something. Effective collaboration is the best way to get anything done in the workplace.

Now you're on the other side, eager to inspire your team members to work well together, but -- just like college -- nothing is getting done. How can you spin this situation away from procrastination and toward productivity and partnership?

For starters, skip the trust falls and other "quirky" icebreakers. These forced team-building exercises often have the opposite effect. Likewise, unique company rituals or even standard department bonding events can actually be counterproductive.

How can you facilitate true collaboration without destroying productivity?

Stop Looking Out for No. 1

Companywide traditions can reaffirm your organization's core values and rally employees to invest themselves in your larger purpose -- decades of anthropological research support this.

However, company traditions often alienate employees who can't participate. A seemingly innocuous happy hour for your sales team after closing a big deal can be a great bonding experience for sales reps. But it leaves your IT and creative teams feeling like they're on the outside -- as if their contributions weren't essential for that win.

Celebrating the hard work of one team to the exclusion of others, as well deserved as the recognition may be, can exacerbate perceptions of favoritism and lead to distrust. This is especially true in small companies or companies where interdepartmental conflict already exists.

I visited a company that grappled with this exact problem. A small team in silos, there was tension between the business development team and everyone else. After asking a few questions, it became clear that travel, commission and bonuses were viewed as unfair rewards that biz dev received -- and it made others hesitant to help them because they already "got enough."

As a leader, your job is to offer everyone an equal chance at success and recognition -- and then get out of the way. Here are three ways to eliminate friction and increase productivity:

1. Don't play favorites.

Your team is likely composed of at least a few people who have something in common with you. Maybe a sales executive attended your alma mater, your creative director is a family friend or your marketing manager's kids attend the same preschool. It's great to bond over these things, but ensure you're not giving these people unfair advantages. Any action that creates the perception that you favor an individual or team will hamper your ability to lead. Worse, it will fracture relationships between departments.

Fostering unity isn't just about finding commonalities; it's about appreciating differences. Employees are retiring later, for instance, so it's likely you have members of three or even four generations working together. Stress an appreciation for systems thinking, and cultivate dialogue around how colleagues and departments depend on one another -- and each other's talents -- to succeed. When one department wins, celebrate with the entire company. It's not just about making everyone feel good; it's about making sure everyone is invested in the same goal.

2. Spot your sticky notes.

Identify the tools that allow your team to work well together. Post-it notes and a whiteboard, leveraged correctly, might be all you need to get co-workers with different backgrounds and skill sets sharing their unique perspectives on a problem. If your team is geographically dispersed, make it a priority to invest in communication and collaboration tools that bring them together.

Tools like Slack, which is partnering with Atlassian to bolster its team chat capabilities, can facilitate communication, whether your team is separated by cubicle walls or oceans. For organizations that offer creative services, Wipster, a video collaboration and publishing platform, can help your entire team stay on schedule. Stillmotion, an international storytelling studio that relies on employees all over the globe, used the platform to make its feedback process more effective.

3. Offer equal odds.

When EY and American Express decided to revamp their parental leave policies, the results were compelling. Offering generous time off for both mothers and fathers, including new adoptive parents, didn't just help attract and retain talent. The policies also leveled the playing field and enabled women to assume more leadership roles. Enacting more inclusive leave policies led to better collaboration among male and female employees, and it helped remove the stigma around maternity leave.

Especially in STEM fields, where perceived inequality between men and women is highest, establishing universally applicable standards can help employees view one another as peers rather than adversaries. But executives and managers have to do more than enact policies. You have to lead by example to ensure the equalization process takes root.

Work can and should be challenging -- but it shouldn't feel like your worst class project. Level the playing field. Removing the competitive element will smooth the way for collaboration.

Published on: Mar 12, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.