While many organizations believe they're great at collaboration, the truth is that many of them are horrible at it -- and end up doing more harm than good. Why it's time to take a hard look at what is going wrong.
Collaboration is an important buzzword around the workplace today, but David Strom’s observation several years ago that there is a belief that “sharing is still for sissies” can still ring true today.
Strom noted that until that attitude changes, “the headphones will stay firmly stuck in our ears, blocking out the rest of the world around us,” he wrote.
While companies often tout their collaborative culture and employees cite their “collaborative” style during annual performance reviews, the difficult truth is that not only has collaboration failed to thrive in many organizations – it’s a downright disaster.
Here are some of the biggest goofs that upend collaborative efforts:
- Creating teams just because. Nearly 60 years of research shows that individuals are really much more creative than teams, finds Leigh Thompson, the J. Jay Gerber Professor of Management and Dispute Resolution at the Kellogg School. If one person really does have the skills and knowledge to complete a project, then don’t form a team to do what one person can do better. “Please don’t create a team just for the sake of creating a team,” she says. “People hate that.”
- Costs are ignored. Organizations get so caught up in the idea of collaboration they don’t take the time to think about whether it makes bottom-line business sense. Is the process going to be automated so that participants aren’t duplicating efforts, adding unnecessary meetings or working with outdated data? As Morten T. Hansen, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley notes: “Cross-company collaboration typically means traveling more, coordinating work, and haggling over objectives and the sharing of information. The resulting tension that can develop between parties often creates significant costs: delays in getting to market, budget overruns, lower quality, limited cost savings, lost sales, and damaged customer relationships.”
- Not everyone is on the same page. There is often plenty of eye rolling when it’s discovered a team member is avoiding a collaborative process because he or she is uncomfortable with the technology being used, or doesn’t really understand a platform. That can lead to such awkwardness among team members it can bog down the collaborative efforts, leading to frustration and delays. By understanding the skills and needs of team members beforehand, such problems can be avoided.
- Leaders get in the way. If a manager approaches a collaborative meeting the same way as every other meeting, then it’s not going to be very collaborative. The same dynamics will quickly fall into the place – the boss leading the agenda, and team members trying to figure out what the boss wants and then agreeing with whatever plan the boss proposes. Collaborative face-to-face dynamics must be different as leaders put aside their own egos, listen attentively to others and actively solicit and support ideas that are different than their own. In many cases, it’s best to bring in an outside facilitator to avoid “group think” and spur members to think outside their comfort zone.
- Collaboration is never defined. Theresa Welbourne, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and CEO of eePulse Inc., a technology and human capital consulting firm, says that while managers might understand how to collaborate effectively, they never share that knowledge with their team. “Without that guidance, the demand to collaborate can start to feel like micromanagement, which is annoying and ineffective,” she says.
- Employee opinions are ignored. Workers can become quickly frustrated by too much togetherness and collaboration becomes nothing but pure irritation. If organizations aren’t regularly taking the pulse of workers and actively soliciting their feedback on the process, they won’t know that collaboration is undermining morale and leading to less cooperation.
- Disagreements are squashed. Thompson, of Kellogg, explains that a “conflict sweet spot” is important for team members in order to produce the best results. “Avoiding conflict isn’t good; debating each other all the time is not that good either,” she explains. “You want to have a moderate amount.” While a manager might tell team members not to criticize each other, research shows that debate often helps the creative process, she adds.
- It’s too comfortable. If you’re working with others who are very familiar to you, it’s unlikely that you’re going to stretch outside your comfort zone. Such groups are more likely to sit back and let others do the work, and may give in to peer pressure – or may not even care about the outcome. Psychologist Anders Ericsson argues that the best way to master a field is to work on the task that’s most demanding for you personally. Team members who are familiar and comfortable with one another may never rise to the next level without more challenge. “To get your teams out of the box and spur innovation, encourage employees to take on new roles they find challenging,” advises Ilya Pozin, founder of Pluto.TV.
- Individual efforts are ignored. Organizations can become so focused on team collaboration they don’t recognize individual contributions, which can result in “social loafing,” says Nicole Lipkin, a clinical psychologist. “If you believe all your hard work will result in a valued outcome (bonus, recognition, or pride) to you and the group, you will do all you can to achieve your goal," she says. "If, on the other hand, you think your work will only add to one-sixth of a desired result, go unnoticed, or contribute to a seemingly senseless group goal, you will not work so hard and may be on your way to be a social loafer.”
- Impatience. Leaders who focus on quick wins regarding collaboration often push team members into turf wars, complicated solutions that aren’t sustainable and inefficient processes. Leaders must set clear expectations – and stick to them – no matter the time commitment.