The Dark Side of “Collaboration”

Is your tendency to get things done on your own, or to check with as many people as possible on even the smallest of projects? I favor capturing the moment of inspiration with one of my own ideas, and then running with it. I don’t feel a desire to loop in as many people as possible. I feel the way I imagine an eccentric chef would feel with a crowd of people standing around her at the stove, with their noses sticking into her pot, when all she wants is the space to create a one-of-a-kind dish. The last thing she wants is a group of people second-guessing and questioning every ingredient she throws in.

We live in an age of collaboration, when companies, and especially our youngest generation in the workforce, prize group efforts. People like me, who enjoy pursuing work on an individual basis, sometimes are seen as flawed because of this preference for solitary work.

But I feel a little vindicated. I was looking through my e-mail a couple weeks ago, and came across a message about research from INFORMS Management Science Journal, a study entitled, “I lie? We lie! Why? Experimental Evidence on a Dishonesty Shift in Groups.” This study reveals that we are much more likely to be dishonest, or even immoral, when in groups than when we are by ourselves. According to the study, when organizations commit large-scale deceptive or corrupt behavior, it is not usually the actions of one or two employees, but a coordinated effort of many individuals, including upper-level management.

What this research reveals is what I’ve heard referred to as “group think,” and it’s something I’ve always been wary of. I connect my wariness of group think to my dislike of places and attractions that draw a crowd, or doing anything—even wearing fashions—that too many other people are doing. It’s so bad that I’m sometimes even reluctant to read a book or watch a TV show that is too popular. I immediately wonder if the book or show could be good if so many people like it—as if the crowd makes clear-headed thinking less, rather than more, likely. I realize my thought process on this is the opposite of what most people would call rational. When I was a teenager, I watched old movies and musicals rather than listening to the rock music that was popular at the time. Funny enough, now that that music is no longer popular, I love it and listen to it all the time.

When a group gets together to work on a project, or all agree on a certain point, do you find that the project, or thought process, becomes muddled and leveled to the lowest common denominator of the group? I also wonder whether creativity and innovative thought become less likely when you feel the need to check in with multiple people before you can act.

The study I mentioned looked at ethical behavior and how people are more likely to act less ethically in a group than they are on their own. This is something most of are familiar with. Most of us, at one time or another, have found ourselves doing something we would never have done on our own. Sometimes this is a good thing—like when we try something new and adventurous because we’re with a group of encouraging friends who are all doing it. But often, it’s not a good thing, like when you act unkindly as a group to a person or another group when you know that in a one-on-one encounter with that other person or group, you would act much differently.

Yet another downside of compulsive collaboration is the time and energy it takes away from deep reflection. Is the compulsory collaboration largely an excuse not to be alone with yourself? Or is it a crutch many people lean on because they never developed the ability to look inward and explore their own thoughts and ideas?

The youngest generations, in particular, may not be accustomed to being alone with themselves, and reveling in their inner-selves and their own ideas and inspirations. I grew up in the 1980s and early 1990s. I thought we had been ruined by television and soft, spoiled living. We were, indeed, probably spoiled, but I remember spending a lot of time wandering around outside our house by myself daydreaming. I had no cell phone/smartphone, and there was no social media to keep up appearances for or to check in with. This afforded me the freedom to get energized from my own ideas. If I were growing up today, I would still have the tendency to look inward because I’m an introvert, but it would be harder to carve out the space for introspection with my smartphone in my pocket buzzing with notifications, and anything I ever wondered about accessible with a simple Google search.

Do you find your youngest employees are not just good at collaboration, but that they need collaboration? Do you think this could be a weakness? If so, how do you offer programs that push them to look inward, and explore their own thoughts and ideas without asking what others think?

Collaboration can be a great thing, like a jazz band that makes music together that’s greater than what each could make on their own, but it also can hinder, creating a dependent, fearful mentality that’s afraid to follow personal inspiration, jump in, and get it done.

What do you see as the pitfalls of collaboration? How do you offset those downsides, while making the most of collaboration’s advantages?

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