Why Collaboration Doesn't Always Work

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We live in a networked economy where connections are currency and collaboration and teamwork have become the fundamental tools for today’s knowledge-based professional services firms. The success and rise of the collaborative economy underscores just how critical it is to be able to form and join highly productive teams. “The best team wins” has never been more true, and with digital disruption sitting on our doorstep, we’re collectively poised to move toward the future of work where all of us will be sharing and working together on the same unified digital platform.

This future is right in front of us and, technologically speaking, the formation of such an ecosystem is inevitable. What may not be so simple to predict is the nature of collaboration once we get there. In an article in the Harvard Business Review, new research by Marc C. Bolino and Philip S. Thompson points to the concept of organizational citizenship behavior. When it’s good it produces high quality social connections, enhanced coordination and communications. It seems likely that helping each other and collaborating can improve team performance. However, according to this new research, that’s not always the case.

I’d Rather Do It Myself

The authors conducted a qualitative study of 238 people in a variety of industries to explain why they would or wouldn’t accept help from a co-worker. They identified five keys reasons why people avoid being helped:

1. Prefer to be self-reliant and complete the work on their own
2. Want to protect their image
3. Don’t want to feel obligated to return the favor
4. Do not trust their co-workers’ motives
5. Believe their co-workers are incompetent

The authors explain: “How pervasive are these attitudes? More so than you might think. When we asked more than 500 employees in a separate survey how much they agreed with various reasons for not seeking help, nearly two-thirds indicated that they preferred to finish their work without assistance from colleagues. Over half agreed that this allowed them to be seen as “high potential” employees. Almost 20% said that they normally declined offers of assistance so that they wouldn’t owe their coworkers favors. Nearly 10% said that their coworkers were “out for themselves,” and roughly 8% thought that their coworkers lacked the competence to help finish tasks.”

The Psychology of Collaboration

Ron Friedman, PhD writes in Psychology Today: “On paper, collaborations have a lot to offer: By putting our heads together with others, we can attack a challenge with greater intellectual firepower. The more perspectives we bring to the table, the more likely we are to eliminate blind spots, unearth creative solutions, and minimize mistakes. The logic seems irrefutable. So it’s surprising that studies on collaborations have yielded mixed results. A closer look at the literature finds that, at times, it’s the collaboration itself that diminishes the quality of our work.” Dr. Friedman cites the following:

  • Collaboration breeds false confidence. A study in Psychology Science found that when we work with others to reach a decision, we become overly confident in the accuracy of our collective thinking.
  • Collaboration introduces pressures to conform. Studies show that social pressures tend to make group members conform to the majority view, even in cases when they believe the majority view is wrong.
  • Collaboration promotes laziness. Ever been to a meeting where you’re the only one prepared? Then you’ve experienced “social loafing” —people’s tendency to invest less effort when they’re part of a team.

Can't We All Just Work Together?

The short answer is of course we can. Working together can be easier and more fruitful that we think. And it doesn't have to water down the process to an accommodating compromised result. Having worked on various creative projects, I have found that once the team is aligned with the mission, every idea is a plus that can be expanded and refined – common cause like winning a new client or an award or the recognition of the boss can be positive motivators for any team. And when done right it can change the world. Here are a couple of suggestions from Dr. Friedman:

  1. Find Teammates Who Do Something You Can’t. The lesson: Collaborations are most effective when teammates complement rather than replicate one another’s abilities. (Besides, skill duplication leads to power struggles.)
  2. Differentiate Between Roles. The lesson: Delineating responsibilities at the start of a project gives everyone at the table direction and a sense of ownership.
  3. Insist on Homework. The lesson: Use meeting time to exchange ideas, not generate them.
Finally, I’d like to add my own suggestion for getting the most out of a collaborative experience – put yourself in the position of a student so you’re open to learn, as well as the teacher who brings new information to light and then grades accordingly.
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