Organizational Collaboration’s Dirty Little Secret

Much of your company’s collaborative success can be chalked up to only 4 percent of your employees. And those employees aren’t too happy about it.

By Carole Bernstein, The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

Across companies and sectors, people are being told that collaboration and teamwork are critical to their company’s future. The time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by at least 50 percent in the past two decades.

But in fact, a small number of employees are shouldering the collaborative burden, according to the recent Harvard Business Review article “Collaborative Overload” by Rob Cross of the McIntire School of Commerce and Reb Rebele and Adam Grant of the Wharton School. In a study of over 300 organizations, the authors found that 20 to 35 percent of value-added collaborations are being generated by only 3 to 5 percent of employees.

Collaboration as a Learned Skill

Stress, burnout, and turnover are higher among these helpers or “extra milers.” In a study of 20 organizations, the authors found that leaders regarded as the most in-demand collaborators actually had the lowest engagement and career satisfaction scores.

“Being a high performer is like winning a pie-eating contest and finding out the prize is more pie,” quips Harold Strawbridge, vice president of Innovation and Continuous Improvement at Inglis, agreeing with the authors’ observation that top collaborators are often not recognized adequately.

He believes collaboration should be formally taught in schools. “When I see somebody’s resume cross my desk and I see MBA, I would love to… know that part of that master’s has been how to effectively collaborate,” Strawbridge says.

Among the fundamental skills Strawbridge identifies is the ability to plan and run an effective meeting. Cross, Rebele, and Grant also discuss the use of meetings for effective collaboration, pointing out that sometimes less is more. They cite a Stanford study in which managers at Dropbox eliminated all recurring meetings for two weeks. The exercise forced employees to reassess which meetings were actually necessary, and resulted in shorter yet more productive gatherings.

How Technology Can Help

The authors state that digital tools can make for better collaboration. They cite programs such as Slack and’s Chatter, which enable open discussion threads on various work topics and make information accessible to more employees. Other programs such as Syndio and VoloMetrix can help managers assess networks and make informed decisions about collaborative activities.

Catherine Shinners, principal and founder of Merced Group, helps implement technology that supports collaboration and reduces over-reliance on meetings. She says that such technologies can also wean people from the inefficient use of emails, which causes versioning problems and broken conversational threads. Shinners further recommends having employees maintain a profile on a company-wide network similar to LinkedIn. She says this lightens the load on frequent collaborators by making others within the company more visible as potential helpers.

Shinner notes that companies with teamwork problems actually may have deeper issues for which over-collaboration is only a symptom, like poor interaction and knowledge management practices. Some firms don’t recognize that these persistent issues are eating away at their corporate culture until the business finds itself at a competitive disadvantage.

Savvier firms realize that professional development is essential to strengthen their executives’ competencies around collaboration. A good executive education partner program can be invaluable for helping leaders root out and address what’s actually causing the perceived “collaborative overload.”

Virtue Isn’t Its Own Reward

Improving collaboration should be addressed at the individual level too, say the authors. Managers can empower overburdened collaborators to filter requests, say no sometimes, or help in ways that energize them. The authors found that at one Fortune 500 technology company, 60 percent of collaborators wanted to reduce one-off requests, but 40 percent were open to increased coaching of others.

Peter Cappelli, DPhil
George W. Taylor Professor of Management; Director, Center for Human Resources, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

And rewarding good collaboration with positive reviews and pay raises is critical. The authors found that roughly 20 percent of organizational “stars”—the individuals who get the praise and the promotions—hit their numbers but contribute nothing to their colleagues’ success. This phenomenon takes an even greater toll on women’s careers, the authors add, since often women are expected to behave helpfully and communally for less recognition.

Leaders can find out more about how to navigate the complexities of collaborative work at Wharton Executive Education. There, luminaries including Peter Cappelli, the director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources, partner with firms to deliver in-depth knowledge for immediate impact.

The programs at Wharton Executive Education teach high-performance teamwork that cuts down on wasted time and energy, distributes collaborative work effectively, and boosts companies’ overall performance.

Of Wharton Executive Education, Cappelli observes, “The learning you get here makes sense. It’s not theoretical—it’s based on what we see going on in the world.”

Partner with Wharton Executive Education for measurable impact. We can design programs that reflect your organizational strategy and corporate culture, and deliver on your business goals.

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