Please, Just Let Me Get Back to Work (AKA The woes of over-collaboration)
Updated: Jan 25, 2021
Today, I am thinking a lot about collaborative overload. The concept, which is boiled down in layman’s terms in the HBR here, basically says that in an effort to be inclusive and collaborative, some organizations have gotten too collaborative. The research shows that 20%-35% of the value-add collaboration in an organization comes from 3%-5% of the employees. And this is the result of people being over-included in collaboration in a way that goes back to the impact of motivational influences on their engagement—when you always ask me to chime in, even if the decision doesn’t directly impact me, I may not be as fully engaged. And it depletes my personal resources—the time and mental energy I have to invest in my other work.
In the schools in which I work, collaborative overload is so real. Leadership team members meet weekly and field hundreds of emails a day. It is not uncommon to have a dean, who is focused on student behavior and school culture, copied on and included in meetings about pedagogy, curriculum, and instructional strategy at the expense of time with kids. It is not uncommon to have a principal copied on EVERYTHING, even though she is, realistically, not going to be able to give all of the hundreds of daily emails she receives the same attention. The complaints I hear are common in a lot of organizations: We meet all the time. I am constantly being asked for feedback. I get more emails than I can process. One look at a typical principal’s weekly schedule will show that engaging with classrooms is scheduled in snippets between hours and hours and hours of meetings held in an office. In the effort to make everyone feel included and ensure we have diversity of thought, we have backed our thought leaders into corners that prevent them from being able to invest fully and truly leverage their expertise. Another common complaint is the number of surveys staff are asked to participate in. Focus groups, surveys, questionnaires—one teacher explained it like this, “I participate in a focus group once a year, two formal surveys, and there is a collaboration session in every staff meeting. Not to mention my weekly one-on-ones. None of it has anything to do with my job. I give my opinion, provide all this insight, and then go back to my classroom and do the same job in the same way I have for the last ten years. What’s the point?”
A critical understanding in collaborative overload is the idea that our resources are finite, and over-collaboration disregards this fact. The resources each person brings to a workplace are personal (time and energy), social (awareness and influence in the culture), and informational (knowledge and skills). Over-collaboration assumes personal resources are never-ending. So, when we ask people, with already limited time and mental energy, to collaborate on decisions that aren’t necessarily their wheelhouse or of direct connection to them, we facilitate disengagement and burnout. Disengagement comes from constantly using up the finite amount of time and energy—I don’t have enough time to give each collaboration equal attention, so I have to “phone in” some of what I weigh-in on. And the time I spend collaborating may be cutting into “my real job.” This means overlooking things that are important and/or building a schedule that isn’t sustainable or healthy.
Energy is a less visible resource, but critical to engagement. When I am constantly asked to participate in decisions that aren’t necessarily mine (or all decisions involve me), my energy will necessarily wane in some in ways that make my expertise and insight impeded. And if I am constantly asked to weigh in on decisions that I don’t feel the impact of, like the teacher said, it becomes pointless. If I can participate in a collaboration without the proper time and energy and still comply, the utility value of me really engaging is lowered. So now I comply with the collaboration, but you aren’t really getting the best of me anymore. Social resources are another finite commodity that over-collaboration depletes. If our ingroup members are always championing something, if there is always an ask, at some point, I am less compelled to sign on. This is why the concept of thoughtful exclusion is so interesting.
The NeuroLeadership Institute talks about thoughtful exclusion here. Their approach requires clear communication, which may be a gap for some organizations over-collaborating to begin with. Their take is that you consider the social brain by naming the idea that someone you may have previously included in a decision is already busy, and you clearly name the fact that you don’t want to over-collaborate. If the goal is to get input from more than the 3%-5% suggested by the research, you do this by hand-picking the right people for each decision and making sure that a wider range of people get access. Transparency about these goals in the interest of preserving precious personal, social, and informational resources ensures people understand the shift is about valuing them, and not pushing them out.
Because many of the organizations I work with who over-collaborate also struggle with communication, I would advocate by starting from clarity about roles and responsibilities. Unclear roles and responsibilities are the number one barrier to positive staff culture that I see in my work. The “all hands on deck” nature of schools and start-up non-profits means many leaders have broad job descriptions for the staff that continually contribute to confusion and mistrust. With clear roles and responsibilities and an accountability system that holds us to clear metrics of success (and rewards us when we attain them), leadership is clearly distributed in a way that is more sustainable and effective. This has to be in place before we can shift from a culture of over-collaboration to thoughtful exclusion. If you clearly name that being left out of a meeting I have always attended to “save my energy,” and I believe that the meeting is a part of my job, I will perceive this as a personal slight or a criticism of my work. But when my role is clear, and I am being consistently provided fair feedback on my performance against my metrics, I can hear you when you say my time is better spent working on X than sitting in this meeting.
Over-collaboration comes from a good place—we know that a diverse set of experiences and perspectives around a table can yield outcomes that we could never conjure alone. And when we have a solid group of skilled experts around us, sometimes it’s hard to not lean on the same people over and over in making decisions. Is it possible the exclusion of your favorite dean from a meeting on pedagogy may mean missing something? Absolutely. But it also means that favorite dean has more time and energy to engage in the work you have deemed most important to her role. She is more likely to stay longer. Time, energy, influence—these resources are not endless, even in the team members getting the best results. With careful cultivation of our staff culture to ensure everyone knows their worth and is treated as a precious resource we need too much to overmine, we can alleviate some of the most common pain points to sustainability, culture, and collaboration.