Should You Be Encouraging Less Collaboration?

Collaboration has become a catchword connoting positive work styles and good “team players,” but it may not always be such a great thing. A post on a Website for scientists,, in which Rob Cross, the author of a recent Harvard Business Review article is interviewed, underscored the perils of “collaborative overload.”

“Our data show that during the last two decades, the amount of time employees spend engaged in ‘collaborative’ work—in meetings, on phone calls, or answering e-mails—has increased by about 50 percent. Perhaps even more significantly, this kind of work now takes up 80 percent or more of employees’ time,” Cross says in the interview.

All this collaboration, Cross points out, leads to employees who unintentionally become bottlenecks in group projects. With so much to collaborate on, inevitably, somebody (or a lot of people) end up waiting on you to make decisions, or to do your share of the work.

In my own organization, I see too much collaboration in which those who are part of the project are not responsible for getting any of the work done, but are responsible for chiming in with opinions. These critiques usually are not helpful because often the “collaborators” are not knowledgeable about what it takes to get the work done, and sometimes they aren’t even all that knowledgeable about the work, period.

I’ve experienced (and am experiencing) a newly named “Director of Content” for our department who, given his title, is responsible for giving his opinion about anything and everything, yet, ironically, doesn’t actually create or plan any content! When employees are required to wait on the opinions of “contributors” who don’t partake at all in the creation or planning of the work, resentment is bred. The expressions, “everyone is a critic” and “armchair quarterbacking,” come to mind.

As you develop employees, how should Learning professionals be leading managers and the heads of departments in the most effective project management techniques? What have you taught and encouraged in collaboration?

Rather than encouraging employees to include everyone and anyone in the completion of their work, employees should be taught to think carefully about who needs to be involved in each assignment. They should recognize that the more people who are involved, the more difficult the task becomes. You get a greater diversity of ideas, but you also get more chances for your work to be derailed by people who are ignorant of your work and its requirements. I think many others feel the same way I do, but are afraid of not including everyone and their uncle in e-mails about assignments. I’ve gotten past that fear, and rarely include another employee out of obligation in an e-mail. If anything, I err on the side of exclusion.

Do you ever find yourself in your own Learning and Development department groaning to yourself before adding a name to an e-mail, knowing that the assignment or project is about to get much more complicated (and often not better) now that this person is involved?

The ability to work independently was always used as a benchmark of maturity when I was growing up. Teachers would note the ability or inability of a child to “work independently.” It’s funny that a skill that was valued in my childhood is now not only devalued, but sometimes even thought of as a flaw.

If I were the leader of an organization, I would try to create a culture where independent work skills were prized because I would recognize that working independently usually means working more efficiently and smarter.

With virtual meeting technology and tools such as internal social networks, we have more opportunities than ever to gather information from many people. It’s a great thing to be able to bounce ideas off many multiple people, and to casually run things past colleagues. But what you don’t want is an organization where collaboration is a mandate, and made part of a formalized structure, so that you can’t just ask another employee’s opinion when you feel like it. An employee should be able to make the distinction between asking for help brainstorming or getting a second opinion, and making the completion of their assignments dependent on far-flung colleagues.

How can you make collaboration a tool to use at your employees’ discretion, rather than an obligation that slows (and often ends) projects?

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