We tend to think of collaboration as an unmitigated good, but in the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review, management scholars Rob Cross, Reb Rebele, and Adam Grant posit that the steady increase in daily collaboration at organizations is actually undermining employee performance. According to their research, rising demand for collaboration, along with structural factors like matrix reporting, are driving attrition among high-performing employees, who are often the most sought out for collaboration:
Consider a case study from a blue-chip professional services firm. When we helped the organization map the demands facing a group of its key employees, we found that the top collaborator—let’s call him Vernell—had 95 connections [within the organization] based on incoming requests. But only 18% of the requesters said they needed more personal access to him to achieve their business goals; the rest were content with the informational and social resources he was providing. The second most connected person was Sharon, with 89 people in her network, but her situation was markedly different, and more dangerous, because 40% of them wanted more time with her—a significantly greater draw on her personal resources.
We find that as the percentage of requesters seeking more access moves beyond about 25, it hinders the performance of both the individual and the group and becomes a strong predictor of voluntary turnover. As well-regarded collaborators are overloaded with demands, they may find that no good deed goes unpunished.
Grant makes a similar point in his 2014 book Give and Take, about how “Giver” employees (those that readily volunteer their time and effort for others) are paradoxically often an organization’s top and bottom employees: Givers are really good enterprise contributors, but those that are too altruistic find that they have no time to spare for their individual work, which suffers as a result. The challenge for organizations, then, is to figure out how to protect the time of these high performers. The way to do that is not necessarily to de-emphasize collaboration, but rather to teach employees with lots of collaborative demands how to reserve time for their own work.
(Our research into enterprise contribution offers some insight into how to manage a more collaborative workforce. If you’re a CEB member, take a look here.)