Is your performance suffering due to endless demands for input, access to resources or meetings? If so, you’re not alone. The expectation to collaborate, to be a team player, has taken over the workplace. According to research published in a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article titled “Collaboration Overload”, many of us are spending around 80% of our time in meetings or responding to colleagues’ requests (Cross et al., 2016). With the equivalent of one day per week left to complete our own work, taking assignments home or logging extra hours at the office has become the norm.
The cost of over-collaboration
Where the story gets really interesting is that research involving more than 300 firms shows a small group of around 3% to 5% of individuals are responsible for up to a third of value-added collaborations (Cross et al., 2016). A study from the University of Iowa showed that a single “extra miler”, someone who frequently goes above and beyond the scope of their own role, can enhance the effectiveness of a team more than all the other members put together (Li et al., 2015)! These employees are the ultimate team players. But at what cost?
It turns out that there are downsides to what University of Oklahoma professor Mark Bolino calls this “escalating citizenship” for both the organization and the individuals (Bolino et al., 2003). For the firm, progress can slow as decision makers become unwilling to act without input from these top collaborators.
For the individuals, the increasing demands lead to a tipping point where they’re no longer effective. Worse still, when network analysis is used to identify super collaborators in organizations, the leaders are usually surprised by at least half the names on the list (Cross et al., 2016). This means a great deal of collaborative effort goes unnoticed. Though disappointing, it is not altogether surprising given that requests for advice can originate from other parts of the business, or even externally, beyond the radar of line managers. Those who are seen as the best sources of information and in the highest demand as collaborators (top center and right of Figure 1) turn out to have the lowest engagement and career satisfaction scores (smallest bubbles in Figure 1). Being over-taxed and under-recognized takes a toll. According to the HBR research, without intervention, these once-high performers either leave, taking valuable knowledge and networks with them, or stay and spread their disengagement to peers.
So, what’s the solution? First, we need to understand three types of collaborative resources: informational, social and personal. Informational resources are knowledge and skills. Social resources represent our awareness of, access to and position in social networks. Finally, personal resources are our energy and time. Importantly, there are differences associated with sharing these resources. When we share informational and social resources, they don’t diminish our supply. We can pass on our knowledge or network awareness and still draw on these resources as needed for our own work. But personal resources are fundamentally different. Time and energy spent collaborating means less is available to attend to our own responsibilities.
The problem, according to the HBR article, is that the default collaboration request is for personal resources, typically in the form of calendar invites (Cross et al., 2016). The authors, Rob Cross, Reb Rebele and Adam Grant, recommend leaders tackle collaboration overload by: (1) redistributing work, and (2) rewarding effective collaborations. As we shall see in the tips below, whether we are a leader, manager, super collaborator, or a colleague making requests for collaboration, we all have a role to play in reducing the impact of collaboration overload.
Redistribute the work
Actionable Tip: Leaders should identify employees at the greatest risk of collaborative overload
The first step in the process is to better understand the supply and demand for collaboration in your organization. Any system that records the volume, type, origin and destination of requests is a potential data source. Examples include employee surveys, electronic communications tracking, 360-degree feedback, CRM programs and network analyses (Cross et al., 2016). This exercise will identify the staff who are considered the best helpers and therefore most at risk for collaborative overload.
Actionable Tip: Encourage behavioral change of top collaborators
Cross, Rebele and Grant (2016) recommend that leaders (and managers) support their top collaborators to shift behaviors by:
- Showing them how to filter and prioritize requests
- Giving them permission to say no or allocate less time to requests for collaboration
- Encouraging them to provide social resources such as an introduction to a colleague if the request is not exactly aligned with their expertise
- Providing informational resources (specific knowledge) as needed, as opposed to personal resources (such as formal membership on a team requiring regular attendance at meetings)
- Recommending that personal resources be invested in activities they find energizing rather than exhausting to reduce stress and disengagement.
If you’re the extra-miler, it’s important to understand that you’re at risk of burnout as your workload escalates (Maslach & Leiter, 2016). While it would be ideal if your manager initiated the actions listed above, as discussed earlier, they may not be fully aware of the collaborative demands on you. Be proactive: schedule a conversation using the list above as a guide.
Actionable Tip: Encourage behavioral change of those requesting input and advice
Leaders and managers also have a role to play in reducing the demands made of super helpers through shifting organizational norms (Cross et al., 2016). Ideas include:
- Encouraging help seekers to locate information themselves by searching company reports, knowledge bases and other repositories
- Guiding help seekers to minimize email requests and meeting invitations when a quick phone call or in-person conversation could complete the request
- Facilitating face-to-face contact by co-locating interdependent staff
- Allowing staff to make decisions without excessive checking in with leaders or stakeholders by streamlining approval processes.
For tips on how to improve teamwork and collaboration, read our post The Science of Teams and Effective Collaboration.
For tips about when to form a team, read this post.
- Bolino, M. C., Turnley, W. H., & Todd, A. (2003). Going the Extra Mile: Cultivating and Managing Employee Citizenship Behavior [and Executive Commentary]. The Academy of Management Executive (1993-2005), 17(3), 60-73. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4165983
- Cross, R., Rebele, R., & Grant, A. (2016). Collaborative Overload. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved 29 July 2022 from https://hbr.org/2016/01/collaborative-overload
- Li, N., Zhao, H. H., Walter, S. L., Zhang, X.-a., & Yu, J. (2015). Achieving more with less: Extra milers’ behavioral influences in teams. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(4), 1025-1039. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000010
- Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 15(2), 103-111. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20311