Where We Go Wrong with Collaboration

Practically everything we do at work is a collaboration. Pre-pandemic, many people spent 85% or more of their time each week in collaborative work — answering emails, instant messaging, in meetings, and using other team collaboration tools and spaces. This number has only grown throughout the pandemic, with no end in sight as we move into various forms of hybrid work.

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

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

  • Identifying and challenging that lead us to collaborate too quickly
  • Imposing structure in our work to prevent unproductive collaboration
  • Alternating behaviors to create more efficient collaboration

It turns out that the first category — beliefs about ourselves and our roles — is the most important 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 desires, needs, expectations, and fears centered around how we feel we need to “show up” for others each day. A desire to help can lead us to jump into a project or debate without being asked. A need for status can prod us to drive collaborations back to ourselves. Fear can block us from saying “no” to a collaborative request that we know we can’t handle.


A first step in reducing decisions overload is becoming aware of these internal triggers. Reflect on the statements below and consider which beliefs you need to guard against:

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

Helping is the quintessential constructive act, and it gives us a sense of purpose, fulfills a deep need to be useful, and bolsters our identity. But if you jump in too quickly or too often or in ways that solve others’ problems without building capability, you inevitably become the path of least resistance for too many requests.

Remember that saying “yes” to one thing means saying “no” to other important priorities — both professional and personal. Be clear on these priorities and get comfortable saying “no.” Don’t solve peoples’ problems directly when you do jump in. Instead, connect them to the right people, point them to the information or resources they need, or coach them on how best to solve the problem. You will be less likely to be sought out immediately the next time — and you will still have helped.

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

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

Avoid activities that give you the sugar rush of accomplishment for accomplishment’s sake. Often these are routine and somewhat mindless activities, like fighting through all email rather than ignoring some and focusing that time on more mentally taxing work. In the extreme, some people even confessed to writing things on a to do list for the simply joy they received from crossing them off! Extract yourself or give partial direction while building others’ capabilities. If you must engage in a small task, remind yourself that good enough really is good enough.

“My desire to be beyond or recognized for my expertise creates excessive reliance on me.”

The desire to influence others and be recognized can drive excessive collaborative demands back to you. Expertise can become a trap of its own: A focus on your own can prevent you from developing it in other people.

Don’t continue to look for status in the expertise that defined you yesterday. Be mindful of subtle ways you comment in meetings or jump into email threads. One unintended consequence is that people might start believing they need to defer to you or get your input before advancing every single idea. In addition, you may not entirely understand the context in which your suggestion is being made; by jumping in, you may inadvertently be offering advice that won’t actually help the project in the end.

“My concern with being labeled a poor performer leads me to engage in collaborations that create overload.”

The worry about getting a negative label makes it almost impossible to say “no” to a request, not only from higher-ups, but also from peers — you may be concerned that saying “no” could impact you later in invisible ways.

Don’t think that saying “no” is your only option. Offer choices, such as, “What order would you like me to get these done in?” Create transparency into your capability and capacity and the volume of demands you are already facing. Then discuss true needs and see if there is a different way to accomplish the request.

“My need to be right leads me to spend too much time preparing for and engaging 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, pushing people to spend hours preparing for meetings, writing emails, and creating excess work for everyone.

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

“Fear of losing control of a project — or a belief that I am the most capable person to do the work well — keeps me from delegating tasks or connecting people around me.”

Fulfilling your need for control can leave you overwhelmed. Moreover, holding onto work and delegating only to people you trust makes team members feel that their autonomy has been diminished — and so their performance lags.

Draw a line between high-risk tasks that really do require your expertise and lower-risk work that you can delegate without concern. Let go to build capability in others and free up time to engage in work where you add the greatest value. And celebrate others’ solutions and resist the temptation to point out how you would have done it differently.

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

An overemphasis on completeness for completeness’s sake creates unnecessary stress for your team members and may send them off chasing unclear objectives that don’t align with the team’s overall work. This happens in quick moments when, for example, you fire off ill-thought-out emails late at night to cross things off your to do list, but provide poorly thought-out directions that initiates a frenzy of activity around you.

Remind yourself that closure — or an empty email inbox — should not be a priority aim. To experiment with what this feels like, don’t answer all emails. Let non-priority work or requests either wait or slide off your radar screen altogether. Skip a meeting and see if people notice.

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

Ambiguity-averse people never have enough information, a clear-enough process, or a perfect-enough plan — and so they always seek more data, more-thorough processes, and a better strategy. Their demands for these things consume hours of others’ time.

Focus on being directionally correct and remain open to adapting ideas and plans as new information comes in. Look to produce a solution in 20 minutes that helps move a plan ahead, rather than spending three hours to get to a more-accurate solution or employ a more thorough process.

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

Too often, FOMO drives unproductive choices to jump into new collaborative projects. You may end up in projects that overburden you and that aren’t well aligned with who you really want to be or what you really want from your career.

Before jumping into a new project, make sure that your plans aren’t driven by an emotional, knee-jerk 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 might help you avoid making a decision based on FOMO rather than doing what is truly best for you.

. . .

Ninety percent of the people I interviewed were clearly exhausted and burned out — not from the actual workload but from collaborative demands rising exponentially before and throughout the pandemic. Yet, about one in 10 were living life more on their terms today, resulting in both higher performance and resilience at work — and thriving outside of work. A fundamental key to my 10-percenters’ success was that they were more aware of triggers that led them to jump into unproductive collaborations. Think about it: Many of us today have a historically ability to shape what we do and who we do it with that generations before us would envy. Why give this gift up?

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