A whole brained approach to collaboration

By Ute Diversi and Robert Holmes
December 2023  

This is the third and final part of our three-part series on collaboration.

Part 1: Bringing collaboration to life

Part 2: The problematic process view of collaborating

In the last article we discussed the underlying cultural bias toward logical, rational, left brained ways of thinking and working. Focusing on goals and processes – both are left brain behaviour preferences – never automatically leads to trust or collaborative behaviour.

In this article we will cover why it is essential for business leaders deliberately using collaborative principles in business (and those applying the ISO 44001 standard) to apply both sides of the brain.


In our journey with leaders, both executive and management, we have observed a real curiosity about how people work, and a more than passing interest in helping adapt behaviours. However, this is often combined with a fundamental lack of organisational competency in collaborative skills – and even less knowledge about their own neurology and preferences.

This lack of understanding cannot be addressed by board reviews, strategy workshops, consultants reworking processes or understanding the logical flow of information around an organisation. Choices, behaviours and thinking are non-tangible and sometimes non-rational elements of our daily life and work. Human behaviour is not always logical – it is psychological! Relationship challenges are behavioural, relational and attitudinal. That is, building and driving organisation wide collaborative behaviours requires soft skills.

Left brain logic vs right brain relationship

Over the past few years, the two of us have participated in organisational endeavours to adopt change approaches based on collaboration, notably Lencioni’s 5, the Hargraves Institute’s Collaborizza method and using ISO 44001 as a guide. As we pointed out in the last article, organisations have a fundamental bias toward using logical and procedural approaches to change, innovation and collaboration. It is, from a neurological point of view, all very left brained.

Solving cultural and behavioural problems rationally is almost a contradiction in terms – because collaboration, as an act, is about trust and relationships. Relationships are messy. Relationships might be soft and fuzzy, but they are certainly not always warm. They involve healthy discussion and debate around differences of opinion. Managing relationships includes establishing rapport, building trust, demonstrating empathy, understanding, actively listening, communicating well and being clear on shared meaning. That is all frightfully right brained.[1]

Whilst we all share a common, high level structural similarity in our brains, we each carry tendencies or preferences in the way we use them. You may have heard the popular belief that men are left brain logical and women are right brain relational. Understanding how the brain works is essential for the success of interpersonal relationships, business transformation and change done well.

The field of neuroscience has expanded dramatically in the last 15 years, as have the attempts to apply it to business. We can now use functional imaging to understand which part of the brain is active when we engage in certain behaviours, to diagnose certain maladies and issues we have with cognition and observe changes to regimes of exercise or stress.

In business we can analyse personal preference using diagnostic tools based on applied neuroscience, such as PRISM Brain Mapping[2], a science-based behaviour profiling system. It measures the preference for a range of behaviours, as well as the activities related to those behaviours. PRISM provides us with ‘maps’ that are representations of how our brains prefer to work.

As can be seen in the diagram below the right side of the brain includes behaviour that is related to collaborative working – being relationship oriented, co-operative and supportive. Additionally, the right hemisphere is linked to estrogen and oxytocin, the latter often called the ‘relationship hormone’.  Is it naïve to expect that collaboration will happen easily when people with a clear preference for left brain behaviours work together? We think so.

Source: www.prismbrainmapping.com.au

This brain preference can be seen playing out in certain careers and industries. Industries such as physics, mathematics, engineering, architecture and project management tend to be dominated by left brain logical people. Design, music, art and human sciences tend to be dominated by right brain creative types.

The top 18 personal attributes identified by the ICW UK, the peak global collaboration body, asking more than 100 companies genuinely committed to collaborating in business are listed in the table below. See the blend required[3]:

strategically minded team orientated
good communicator open to sharing
behaving ethically behaving empathetically
self-assured self-aware
trustworthy good at listening
leading confidently creative/innovative
understanding the business open-minded to others
managing failure and mistakes optimistic, belief in collaboration
organisational role clarity engaging personality


Series conclusion

Collaborative ways of working in business produce significant tangible (bottom line) and intangible results like value add, improved innovation and more rapid problem solving. Collaborative ways of working are becoming more common in Australia and overseas, and the international standard ISO 44001 and its 12 principles is often the starting point for establishing those ways of working.

Collaboration tends to happen successfully when enormous requirements or challenges are faced by a community trying to adapt or innovate. In the global business world, there is a growing trend toward collaboration, however, the 2017 ISO 44001 standard is strongly biased toward left brain thinking. To be truly collaborative leaders need to have a foundational level of knowledge of how the brain works and which behaviours drive collaborative working.

Our prediction is that whole brained collaborative working will become a competitive edge in the future, with early adopters soon adding CCOs – Chief Collaboration Officers – to their C-suite.


[1] For a more thorough examination of left vs right brain preferences see McGilchrist, I., (2009). The Master and His Emissary, Yale Press.

[2] To learn more about PRISM Brain Mapping, follow this link.

[3] “Chakkol, M., Finne, M., and Johnson, M. (2017). Understanding the psychology of collaboration: what makes an effective collaborator?” ICW, UK and the Warton Business School, p12

Adash Janiszewski

Chief Executive Officer

Adash is Providence’s CEO and is responsible to the Providence Board and Providence’s clients for ensuring the timely delivery of outcomes through advice, guidance and mentoring to Providence’s staff.