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When it comes to overload and burnout at work, our usual corrective approach is to follow the advice of Captain Renault in the movie Casablanca: “Round up the usual suspects.” We focus on, or at least complain about, meetings, e-mail, social media, mobile phones and intolerant bosses. But Babson College professor Rob Cross suggests we should be looking at another culprit: collaboration.

“Today, practically everything you do at work is a collaboration,” he writes in his book, Beyond Collaboration Overload. “Even if you go off alone to labour over a contract or a project plan, you’re making changes to a piece of work that probably came to you from someone and will go to someone after you.”

Collaboration has a noble purpose: keeping others involved in decisions or at least informed about them, and melding together everyone’s abilities. But when you have too much of a good thing it can go awry. Maybe we have to dial it back, thinking about what’s the appropriate level of collaboration to be effective.

He stumbled onto that notion when he was consulting with organizations on communications, decision-making and innovation. He felt he was entering combat zones, the people he was working with highly stressed, exhausted or burned out. After researching the cause over the years, he realized “we’re all flooded with unproductive collaboration and we’re drowning.”

His book arrives after the pandemic disrupted our normal office processes. Suddenly people were working from home, still collaborating, but maybe not as much. That was seen as a bad thing and the call now is to return to the office so we can continuously collaborate again. But maybe in either situation, remote or in office, the focus should not be on collaborating more but on what is productive and what is unproductive collaboration.

It will start with top leaders, since they set the tone and are amongst those drowning. He notes that too often as managers rise in big organizations they are unprepared for the intense collaborative demands they face and are rarely taught how to manage those collaborations as a sensible network.

When he studied one executive’s network of interactions, 118 people that individual oversaw were coming to him daily for information. The requests ranged from big questions involving multimillion dollar expenses to relatively minor issues such as hiring for low-level positions or small capital expenditure approvals.

And the study only looked at one of three units that executive supervised; yet, at most, Prof. Cross says, 50 people overall should be connecting with that leader daily. But the executive wanted to be helpful. Indeed, he loved being helpful – took pride in it, even as his bosses were disappointed in his performance, nobody understanding the reason he was flailing. Collaboration was preventing him from acting on priorities.

Too often, Prof. Cross says, organizations blame the individual. But the issue is a breakdown in collaboration strategy. The person needs to find a better path. It starts by:

Challenging beliefs about yourself and your role

Prof. Cross’s research suggests roughly 50 per cent of the collaboration overload problem stems from the beliefs we hold. We are triggered by factors like a desire to help others, the sense of fulfilment from accomplishing goals with others, the desire to be influential or recognized for our expertise, concern about being labelled a poor performer or colleague and the need to be right.

Figure out what triggers apply most commonly to you and how you might challenge those beliefs. For example, help others to become better consumers of your time, being clear about what kinds of issues you should be involved in and which you should not. Coach people to be very structured in how they approach you for assistance and input. After a few minutes of interaction ask, “So that I use your time well can you quickly let me know what you hoped we would accomplish together?”

Impose structures that helps shield you from unnecessary collaborative demands

He argues you have more control over the work you do than you might believe. Figure out what your key objectives are and use your calendar strategically to achieve them. One key move, as with the executive mentioned earlier, is to decide on a decision-making threshold: what kinds of issues will you pass judgment on and which ones belong with subordinates? Be brave and skip meetings that aren’t essential. Cut the length of meetings, and the number you attend. It might seem you should also cut back on connection to others but he argues the opposite. To achieve your ambitions, you need to pro-actively initiate connection to others who can be important to your personal and professional success, developing what he calls a “non-insular network,” which takes you off your island, whatever that is.

Altering behaviours to streamline collaboration practices

Think through the various channels of collaboration – meetings, e-mail and direct messages – and figure out how to be more efficient with each, coaching others to join you in collaboration efficiency. Allocate appropriate time to collaborative tasks, asking what does this interaction need?

But don’t just free up time. That could lead you to just jam in more meetings, e-mails and direct messages. Figure out how to make maximum impact of your time with a more logical collaborative footprint.

That meshes, in part, with some standard advice on reducing your work burden and organizing yourself better. But you probably have not thought much about the role of collaboration in your overload, and how much of that overload is not pushed on you by a demanding boss and organization but by your own collaborative urges. Those urges need to be tempered.

Cannonballs

  • If you worry about your staff joining the Great Resignation, re-recruit them. As you would with new employees, spend time understanding their motivations and ambitions, and help them to see the positive impact they are making in the organization, advise consultants Debbie Cohen and Kate Roeske-Zummer.
  • Television has producers and perhaps your remote and hybrid meetings need them as well. Have someone in the role of producer in the physical room, and for larger meetings, another that is remote, suggests Tom Stone, a senior research analyst at the Institute for Corporate Productivity.
  • Five things managers should never say about their return to work plan, according to journalist Laura Berlinsky-Schine: there are no exceptions to this plan; I shouldn’t tell you, but …; so what if you’re scared; I don’t know any more than you do; the pandemic is over.

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