Collaboration Without Burnout

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Rob Cross, Scott Taylor, and Deb Zehner for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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So many different people can get to you through different channels, and the pressure is enormous.”

“Constant e-mail, international travel, calls at all hours—I was exhausted. The collaborative demands eventually wore me down.”

“I always felt I had to do more, go further, save the day. I would become people’s life raft and then almost drown.”

These are the voices of collaborative overload.

As organizations become more global, adopt matrixed structures, offer increasingly complex products and services, and enable 24/7 communication, they are requiring employees to collaborate with more internal colleagues and external contacts than ever before. According to research from Connected Commons, most managers now spend 85% or more of their work time on e-mail, in meetings, and on the phone, and the demand for such activities has jumped by 50% over the past decade. Companies benefit, of course: Faster innovation and more-seamless client service are two by-products of greater collaboration. But along with all this comes significantly less time for focused individual work, careful reflection, and sound decision making. A 2016 HBR article coauthored by one of us dubbed this destructive phenomenon collaborative overload and suggested ways that organizations might combat it.

Over the past few years we’ve conducted further research—both quantitative and qualitative—to better understand the problem and uncover solutions that individuals can implement on their own. Working with 20 global organizations in diverse fields (software, consumer products, professional services, manufacturing, and life sciences), we started by creating models of employees’ collaborations and considering the effect of those interactions on engagement, performance, and voluntary attrition. We then used network analyses to identify efficient collaborators—people who work productively with a wide variety of others but use the least amount of their own and their colleagues’ time—and interviewed 200 of them (100 men and 100 women) about their working lives. We learned a great deal about how overload happens and what leaders must do to avoid it so that they can continue to thrive.

Not surprisingly, we found that always-on work cultures, encroaching technology, demanding bosses, difficult clients, and inefficient coworkers were a big part of the problem, and most of those challenges do require organizational solutions. But we discovered in many cases that external time sinks were matched by another enemy: individuals’ own mindsets and habits. Fortunately, people can overcome those obstacles themselves, right away, with some strategic self-management.

Much overload is driven by your desire to maintain a reputation as helpful.

We uncovered best practices in three broad categories: beliefs (understanding why we take on too much); role, schedule, and network (eliminating unnecessary collaboration to make time for work that is aligned with professional aspirations and personal values); and behavior (ensuring that necessary or desired collaborative work is as productive as possible). Not all our recommendations will suit everyone: People’s needs differ by personality, hierarchical level, and work context. But we found that when the people we studied took action on just four or five of them, they were able to claw back 18% to 24% of their collaborative time.

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To evaluate your state of collaborative overload, go to networkassessments.org and take the assessment built from this research.

A version of this article appeared in the July–August 2018 issue (pp.134–137) of Harvard Business Review.

Rob Cross is the Edward A. Madden Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College and a coauthor of The Hidden Power of Social Networks (Harvard Business Review Press, 2004).

Scott Taylor is an associate professor of organizational behavior at Babson College.

Deb Zehner has 15 years of experience conducting research, developing network-based assets, and leading organizational network projects, most recently with Connected Commons.

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