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Lucy Ball is a leadership coach and facilitator

Collaboration caution

Research published in Harvard Business Review Febuary 2016’s article Collaborative Overload by Cross, Rebele and Grant found that ‘the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more in two decades’.

Collaboration between team members, between teams and across boundaries is a theme that is cropping up time and time again in my own clients.  One organisation is seeking to get more synergy across businesses within a plc group. Another is seeking to make a functionalised operating model work across business units. Another is focusing on end to end processes across silo boundaries.

What I like about Cross, Rebele and Grant’s article is how they use data analytics to get to some of the truths about how collaboration is really working in organisations. I summarise below the data that chimes with my own experience of supporting leaders with collaboration.  The message is clear: by all means collaborate and require collaboration, but be smart about it.


Not everyone is collaborating equally

As much as 35% of the useful collaboration is coming from as little as 3% of the workforce. These super collaborators get quickly swamped if their time is hugely is demand and can turn from helpful nodes to organisational pinch points and disengaged flight risks.

There’s a gender factor

Research has shown that men are expected to collaborate less and are rewarded more when they do. Conversely woman are expected to collaborate more and are disapproved of when they don’t. Women are more likely to collaborate by giving their time, whereas men are more likely to collaborate by offering information.

Reward and expectation are not necessarily in tune

Many organisations are hoping for and indeed asking for collaboration whilst still rewarding individual contribution. There is only a 50% overlap between top collaborators and those deemed top performers and as many as 20% of ‘stars’ are seen as actively un-collaborative whilst being rewarded for individual success.

Collaboration takes different forms

Cross, Rebele and Grant point to three types of collaboration: Type 1 is information sharing, type 2 is social influence and type 3 is personal time and energy.  The first two can be quick and don’t deplete you – they are a slideshare or a Linked In referral. The third is a finite resource that can lead to stress if over-taxed.

The lessons for leaders are useful. For individual leaders, prioritising and boundary management is vital. If you are a collaborator, laying down your boundaries and ensuring that you don’t get swamped is key. For female leaders in particular, it may also be worth ensuring you are recognised for collaborative time vis a vis your male peers.

For leaders wanted to encourage more collaboration in their followers, it’s about setting this up wisely; ensuring you define your expectations around collaboration clearly at the outset. Structuring collaboration so that key resources can add ‘Type 3’ value without burn-out is also essential if collaboration isn’t to bog your organisation down.












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