Collaboration lessons from “Downton Abbey”

A period drama about seismic shifts in British social hierarchy? A pretty, witty soap opera about love and loss and loyalty?

Nah, we’re pretty sure that Downton Abbey is about workplace collaboration. Just like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Just like The Hunger Games. Just like Breaking Bad.

We get that collaboration is an exciting topic but, jeez, get a fresh premise, Hollywood!

Skeptical? Ring a bell, have someone dress you for dinner, then feast your eyes upon these jolly good lessons in lively collaboration.

1. Embrace new technology

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A new way of life is constantly pounding its proletariat paws on the ornate doors of Downton. New technology, too, affects every corner of the estate, from the Earl of Grantham’s business ventures to poor Mrs. Patmore’s business processes in the kitchen (spoiler alert: she doesn’t like refrigerators). The moral of the story: progress is inevitable. The only question is whether you will be part of the progress.

If you’re the early adopter, on the other hand, make sure you put in the effort to explain why you want to buy and use this wonderful new invention. Explain that your fancy new fridge isn’t going to add more work to your overworked kitchen staff – and that it isn’t going to render them any less essential*. Instead, you’ve found something to make their work more efficient.

*Unless you actually are replacing your workers with robots, in which case it’s probably best to just be honest about it.

2. Remember that someone is always listening

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There are tons of secrets at Downton, but there are rarely secrets for very long. Eavesdroppers (both of the accidental and scheming varieties) are always lurking around the corner. And they didn’t even have Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat! I once knew someone who anonymously trolled the comment section of his own company’s website while at work – only of course it wasn’t all that anonymous at all; apparently he was unfamiliar with IP addresses. I also knew someone who constantly engaged in workplace whispers, much to the annoyance of everyone else in earshot. Save the gossip for the dinner table.

3. Make yourself uniquely useful and they will have to keep you around (even if you are annoying)

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Perhaps nobody likes a busybody, but well-intentioned busybodies are better for business than apathetic laggards. If you’re going to be poking your nose in other people’s affairs and acting as a pushy promoter of this-or-that cause, it will go a long way when your collaborators see that you’re outworking them, or have taken steps to acquire training and experience that they lack (as with Mrs. Crawley’s nursing background).

4. Don’t be too proud for dirty work

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Don’t be a doormat, but don’t get hung up on “that’s not in my job description.” The trend in business is toward flattening org charts and hierarchies (Mr. Carson would be mortified, surely). Even Jeff Bezos goes through call-center training each year.

5. Keep your sense of humor

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The perpetually scene-stealing Dowager Countess, despite her rather cushy station in life, accumulates a daunting share of stress and heartbreak over the years. She can almost always be counted on for a perspective-restoring zinger or three. “Don’t be defeatist, dear,” she scolds her granddaughter at one point. “It’s very middle class.”

6. Don’t be limited by your job description
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We’ve looked at how agencies are reinventing creative teams with the philosophy that great ideas can come from anywhere. In this age of true collaboration, departmental walls tumble – and the increase in visibility and transparency creates unprecedented opportunities to transcend your job title and pitch in with (and/or acquire knowledge from) colleagues on other teams. Note: that doesn’t mean that everyone gets to be lords and ladies of the manor.

7. Challenge assumptions – and you will often find surprise supporters
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A recurring theme in Downton Abbey: characters assume they will be ostracized/scorned/ganged-up-upon/unloved-forever only to find surprising support in their corner. While never the first to challenge the status quo, even stubborn ol’ Lord Grantham repeatedly learns to embrace (or at least accept) changes to his worldview.

8. Learn why your business does things the way they do things
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In our 9 Collaborators infographic, the Dinosaur is generally considered one of the characters you don’t want as a result when you take the quiz. Mr. Carson and Mrs. Patmore are proud Dinosaurs, creatures of habit who prefer traditional ways of work. Rather than bulldozing them with your big new ideas, though, take the time to find out why they’re so attached to those traditions. What are they afraid they’ll lose if they plug in your refrigerator or start using your collaboration solution? Win Dinosaurs over and they will be forceful allies.

9. Unite under a common purpose
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You may have to collaborate across a difficult generation gap. You may collaborate with people who hate collaborating. You may wind up with an outright rival in your workplace. When all else fails, reconnect over shared goals. For most butlers and valets, this revolves around protecting very rich people from the indignity of putting on their own pajamas or having a guest walk into a room unannounced. For most businesses, this probably has something to do with customers.

10. Make the most of your moment
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It may be sobering to realize that your business would probably carry on without you – and, moreover, that the world would almost certainly carry on without your business (no offense, Google; please don’t turn the fury of your search algorithms against us). Let it be liberating instead. Don’t blow your successes and failures – or the successes and failures of your collaborators – out of proportion.

Adam McKibbin
Post by Adam McKibbin

Adam McKibbin is the content marketing manager for iMeet Central. His writing has been featured in Adweek, the Chicago Tribune and The Nation, and he’s produced content for some of the leading tech brands on the Fortune 500.

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