The Dark Side of Collaboration

August 17, 2016 Sarah Payne

Darth Vader

“Most of us now work in teams, in office without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.” – Susan Cain, author and co-founder of Quiet Revolution

Do you agree with Susan? Has your office succumbed to the open office, collaboration-heavy trend? Do you think it helps or hinders productivity?

Susan calls it “The New Groupthink”—and argues that it’s taken over offices and schools. Seventy percent of Americans now work in open office plans and have lost 300 square feet of personal work space since the 70s. That alone might not be alarming, but consider its impact on productivity. Susan writes, “people whose work is interrupted make 50 percent more mistakes and take twice as long to finish it.”

It would be unrealistic to suggest we get rid of teamwork and collaboration in the workplace. But new research suggests that it’s happening disproportionately and could be costing us our best employees.

“Collaboration Overload”

Rob Cross, Reb Rebele, and WorkHuman speaker Adam Grant published a fascinating piece in Harvard Business Review, which shares data they’ve collected over the past two decades. They found that managers and employees are spending 50% more time in collaborative activities and 80% of their time in meetings, on the phone, and responding to emails.

When they looked at data from more than 300 organizations, it showed that, “20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees.”

What happens to those 3 to 5% of employees? Rightfully, they earn reputations for being helpful. So more people request their time and attention. Soon, they spend so much time collaborating and giving input on other people’s projects, that “they’re no longer personally effective.”

Why should that make us in HR sit up and take notice? Because oftentimes no one in the organization knows how integral these workers are to the day-to-day running of the business:

…the volume and diversity of work they do to benefit others goes unnoticed, because the requests are coming from other units, varied offices, or even multiple companies. In fact, when we use network analysis to identify the strongest collaborators in organizations, leaders are typically surprised by at least half the names on their lists.

Not only are leaders unaware how connected these workers are to other business units, but they also underestimate how much of the workers’ personal resources are in demand by others.

Flight Risks

To learn the impact of this collaboration overload, authors of the HBR piece conducted a case study with a blue-chip professional services firm, mapping out and surveying everyone connected with the highest collaborators.

The data showed that, “as the percentage of requestors seeking more access moves beyond about 25, it hinders the performance of both the individual and the group and becomes a strong predictor of voluntary turnover.”

These in-demand collaborators also have low engagement and career satisfaction scores.

Finding the Collaborators

Cross, Rebele, and Grant make several recommendations for fixing this imbalance, including encouraging behavioral change, using technology to make information more accessible, and making structural changes.

But how do you find the strongest collaborators that may be the greatest flight risks? Social recognition, which collects crowdsourced feedback from across the organization, gives leaders a comprehensive view of the work that’s happening in their team or department. It allows managers to find patterns in recognition data to discover hidden influencers.

Authors of the article agree: “Consider professional basketball, hockey, and soccer teams. They don’t just measure goals; they also track assists. Organizations should do the same, using tools such as network analysis, peer recognition programs, and value-added performance metrics.”

What’s more, they share how one life sciences company was able to distribute bonuses more fairly during an acquisition by using network analytics to find, “very influential employees deep in the acquired company who had broad impact but no formal authority.”

Team Building with Social Recognition

By giving workers opportunities to connect, thank, recognize and form relationships across and among workgroups and functions, social recognition strengthens the unseen networks that keep our organizations thriving.

It also helps build a sense of psychological safety, which Google found to be a key element in high-performing teams. Charles Duhigg writes in New York Times:

The behaviors that create psychological safety — conversational turn-taking and empathy — are part of the same unwritten rules we often turn to, as individuals, when we need to establish a bond. And those human bonds matter as much at work as anywhere else. In fact, they sometimes matter more.

Social recognition not only gives you the right data to identify the high collaborators and reduce turnover, but it also fosters a more human work environment that allows people to work more effectively together.


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