Where we go wrong with collaboration

Virtually everything we do at work is collaborative. Before the pandemic, many people spent 85% or more of their time each week in collaborative work – respond to emails, instant messaging, meetings, and use other team collaboration tools and spaces. This number has only increased throughout the pandemic, with no end in sight as we transition to various forms of hybrid work.

The dilemma is that the conventional wisdom about teamwork and collaboration has created too much of the wrong kind of collaboration, which hurts our performance, health, and overall well-being. My Commons connected colleagues and I have spent a decade studying quantitatively how successful people – those who are top performers and thrive in their work — manage collaboration in today’s hyper-connected workplace. What we learned is that top performers weren’t distinguished by larger networks, but rather by more effective networks. By collaborating in a more purposeful way, the successful people I studied were 18-24% more effective than their peers.

In-depth interviews with over 600 successful women and men showed how they accomplished this feat through three categories of behaviors:

  • Identify and challenge beliefs that lead us to collaborate too quickly
  • Imposing structure in our work to avoid unproductive collaboration
  • Change behaviors to create more effective collaboration

It turns out that the first category—beliefs about ourselves and our roles—is the largest of the three, accounting for 50% or more of the overall problem. When I say “beliefs,” I’m talking about deeply held and often unexamined wants, needs, expectations, and fears centered around how we feel the need to “show ourselves” to others every day. The desire to help can lead us to embark on a project or debate without being asked. A need for status can prompt us to bring collaborations back to ourselves. Fear can keep us from saying “no” to a collaboration request that we know we can’t handle.

A first step to reduce collaborative overload is to become aware of these internal triggers. Consider the statements below and think about the beliefs you need to protect yourself from:

“My desire to help others makes me an all-too-easy outlet for collaborative requests.”

Helping is the constructive act par excellence, and it gives us meaning, responds to a deep need to be useful and strengthens our identity. But if you step in too quickly or too often or in ways that solve other people’s problems without building capacity, you inevitably become the path of least resistance for too many demands.

Remember that saying “yes” to one thing means saying “no” to other important priorities, both professional and personal. Be clear about these priorities and be comfortable saying “no”. Don’t directly solve people’s problems when intervening. Instead, connect them with the right people, direct them to the information or resources they need, or advise them on the best way to resolve the issue. You will be less likely to be searched immediately next time – and you will have helped again.

“My sense of accomplishment leads me to engage in collaborative work that creates overload.”

The bursts of satisfaction you get from accomplishing something can be addictive, preventing you from focusing your energy where it’s needed most: the work to which you add the greatest and most distinctive value.

Avoid activities that give you the fulfillment rush for accomplishment. These are often routine and somewhat mindless activities, such as fighting through all the emails rather than ignoring some and focusing on more mentally taxing work. In the extreme, some people have even confessed to writing things on a to-do list for the sheer joy of crossing them off! Extract yourself or provide partial direction while empowering others. If you have to commit to a small task, remember that good enough really is good enough.

“My desire to be influential or recognized for my expertise creates an overreliance on me.”

The desire to influence others and be recognized can send excessive demands for collaboration back to you. Expertise can become a trap in itself: focusing on your own can prevent you from developing it in other people.

Don’t continue to seek status in the expertise that defined you yesterday. Pay attention to the subtle ways you comment in meetings or jump into chat threads. An unintended consequence is that people might start to believe they have to defer to you or get your input before advancing every idea. Also, you may not fully understand the context in which your suggestion is made; by intervening, you may inadvertently offer advice that won’t actually help the project in the end.

“My worry about being called a bad performer leads me to engage in collaborations that create overload.”

The worry of getting a negative label makes it almost impossible to say ‘no’ to a request, not only from superiors but also from your peers – you may be worried that saying ‘no’ might affect later invisibly.

Don’t think that saying “no” is your only option. Offer choices, such as “In what order would you like me to do them?” Create transparency in your capacity and capacity and the volume of requests you are already facing. Then discuss the real needs and see if there is another way to accomplish the request.

“My need to be right leads me to spend too much time preparing for and participating in collaborative activities.”

Whatever the source of the need to be correct – a threat to your identity as a competent teammate and fear are common factors – it generates unproductive activities, causing people to spend hours preparing for meetings, writing perfect emails and creating an excess of work for everyone.

It’s best to admit that you don’t know the exact answer, but are able and willing to find out quickly. By being authentic about your boundaries and having the courage to ask questions, you not only reduce your unproductive activities, but you also create space for others to be honest about their boundaries as well.

“The fear of losing control of a project – or the belief that I’m the most capable person to do the job well – keeps me from delegating tasks or connecting people around me.”

Meeting your need for control can leave you overwhelmed. Additionally, clinging to work and only delegating to people you trust makes team members feel like their autonomy has been curtailed – and therefore their performance lags behind.

Distinguish between high-risk tasks that really require your expertise and low-risk tasks that you can delegate without worry. Let go to empower others and free up time to engage in work where you add the greatest value. And celebrate other people’s solutions and resist the temptation to show how you would have done things differently.

“My need for closure results in communications that create unnecessary work and stress for others and send future interactions back to me.”

Overemphasizing completeness for completeness’ sake creates unnecessary stress for your team members and can send them chasing unclear goals that don’t align with the overall work of the team. This happens in quick moments when, for example, you send inconsiderate emails late at night to to cross things off your to-do list, but provide poorly thought out instructions that set off a frenzy of activity around you.

Remember that closure – or an empty inbox – shouldn’t be a top priority. To experience what that looks like, don’t reply to every email. Let non-priority work or requests wait or disappear completely from your radar screen. Skip a meeting and see if people notice.

“My discomfort with ambiguity and coping with adaptation as a project unfolds results in excessive collaborative work to perfect or gain buy-in to a plan.”

Ambiguity-averse people never have enough information, a clear enough process, or a perfect enough plan — and so they’re always looking for more data, deeper processes, and better strategy. Their requests for these things consume hours of other people’s time.

Focus on being directionally correct and stay open to adapting ideas and plans as new information comes in. Aim to produce a solution in 20 minutes that helps move a plan forward, rather than spending three hours to arrive at a more precise solution or use a more in-depth process.

“FOMO pushes me to engage in collaborative work that creates overload.”

Too often, FOMO pushes unproductive choices to embark on new collaborative projects. You may find yourself in projects that overwhelm you and do not align well with who you really want to be or what you really want from your career.

Before embarking on a new project, make sure your plans aren’t driven by a knee-jerk emotional reaction based on fear or social comparison. Cultivate relationships in your network with people who know you well. Tap these people to develop a counter-narrative that could help you avoid making a decision based on FOMO rather than doing what’s truly best for you.

. . .

Ninety percent of the people I interviewed were clearly exhausted and exhausted – not from the actual workload, but from the demands for collaboration that increased exponentially leading up to and throughout the pandemic. Yet around one in 10 people were living more on their terms today, translating into both better performance and resilience at work – and thriving outside of work. A fundamental key to the success of my 10 percent was that they were more aware of the triggers that led them to engage in unproductive collaborations. Think about it: Many of us today have a historically unparalleled ability to shape what we do and who we do it with that generations before us would envy. Why give this gift?

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