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Is Collaboration Getting Out of Hand?

March 10, 2022
Too much of the wrong type of collaboration can negatively impact an employee’s well-being.

“We are exhausted, and we can’t put our finger on it,” explains Rob Cross, author of the recent book Beyond Collaboration Overload. Cross, professor of global leadership at Babson College and founder of Connected Commons, a consortium of over 100 organizations accelerating network research, offers his perspective as to why we’re so exhausted and, more importantly, how to fix it.

We are, Cross says, overactive in our collaboration with others. “We endure a volume, diversity and velocity of collaborations that place an unprecedented tax on our time and brains.”

Part of the reason for this is that over the past 10 years collaboration has become the fabric of how we work. Cross notes that companies consume 85% or more of their employees’ time in collaborative activities and have no idea what impact this time has on corporate performance, individual productivity, or—perhaps more disturbing—employee well-being.

In our daily jobs, we are constantly providing feedback across a wide array of areas and are readily accessible through many modes of communication. Something has to give. Now is the exact right time to address this given the fact that companies are trying to put together an optimal work schedule that combines in-person and remote work.

“Companies face an interesting challenge now of deciding whether to require people to come back to the office and risk leaving out others who don’t want to come back,” Cross says. “Employers will have to figure out a different way of having people collaborate.”

We must determine what level of collaboration is beneficial. While collaboration in and of itself is effective, at this current level it becomes ineffective, even to the point of harmful as we neglect other aspects of our lives. Cross notes that people no longer have the time for the “interactions that replenish them—neighborhood gatherings, civic events, exercise, volunteering and just being present.”

Through his research studying networks, Cross advises employees to do the following:

Challenge beliefs about yourself and your role. Recognize how much of it is driven by your own desire to maintain a reputation as a helpful, knowledgeable, or influential colleague or to avoid the anxiety that stems from ceding control over or declining to participate in group work. For example, someone who engages in the entire life cycle of a small project, beyond the time when the need for her expertise has passed, might pride herself on supporting teammates and ensuring a high-quality result. But that’s not the kind of collaboration that makes a difference over the long term; indeed, too much of it will prevent her from doing other, more important work.

Impose structure that helps shield you from unnecessary collaborative demands. Work to reset colleagues’ expectations about the level and timeliness of your engagement. Talk about your key priorities so that everyone knows what you need (and want) to spend the most time on. Ask colleagues about their interests and ambitions so that you can identify opportunities to distribute or delegate work. Block out time for reflective work and seek collaboration with those who can help you move toward your North Star objectives.

Alter behaviors to streamline collaboration practices. When it comes to building your network, focus on the quality of the relationships, not the number of connections. Efficient collaborators tend to draw people to collaborative work by conferring status, envisioning joint success, diffusing ownership and generating a sense of purpose and energy around an outcome. By creating “pull”—rather than simply pushing their agenda—effective collaborators get greater and more aligned participation and build trust so that people don’t feel the need to seek excessive input or approval.

Once you have reined in your collaborative efforts, Cross says his research has found that you can reclaim 18-24% of your collaboration time. This regained time can be reinvested in ways that aid both your overall work performance and your well-being.

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