In the latest issue of The Harvard Business Review, a team of researchers argue that a steady increase in collaborative work is undermining organisations’ performance.
Across industries, they say, the most knowledgeable and helpful employees are barraged by requests from coworkers throughout the company until eventually they burn out and quit.
It’s a sort of “success syndrome,” the researchers say — the more valuable you are to the company, the more demands get placed on you.
We spoke to one of the researchers behind The Harvard Business Review article — Rob Cross, a professor of commerce at the University of Virginia — about how this process typically unfolds and what can be done to prevent it.
Cross, who’s been studying the effects of collaborative networks for two decades, said he’s seen a “phenomenal explosion in collaborative intensity in the last 10 years.”
Part of that explosion is attributable to technological innovations like email and social media, which make it easier to connect with coworkers across the globe in real time.
But Cross also argues that a less obvious factor is the way organisations are evolving on a structural level. He noted that most Fortune 500 organisations are moving to matrix-based management and dual-reporting systems, which means that employees might be responsible to and receive assignments from at least two managers.
Moreover, Cross said that in many industries job knowledge has gotten so specialised that it becomes imperative for people in different departments to work together.
On the surface, these developments might seem like a good thing — Cross said people’s immediate reaction when they hear about collaboration is that “everyone thinks we need more of it.”
Even senior leaders can be blind to the downsides of collaboration, namely that their top employees are getting overloaded and are at risk for leaving. That’s largely because many of the demands placed on those employees are “invisible” to everyone else.
In a 2011 paper on how collaboration contributes to employee turnover, Cross and colleagues wrote: “In our research we frequently spoke with leaders who were mystified as to why an employee’s productivity had been falling off until they were able to see how relationally overloaded that employee had become.”
In other words, leaders might think that their assignments and requests are the only drains on an employee’s time, not realising that that same employee is being pulled in all directions by other colleagues. So when that employee burns out — or worse, leaves the company — they can’t imagine why.
Yet at the same time, no one has a problem understanding how overwhelmed they feel personally. Cross said everyone cringes at the idea of having another meeting put on their calendar because they’re already so bogged down.
Cross’s aim in studying collaborative networks is to “put some data around what everyone’s experiencing,” so that organisations can put measures in place to combat collaborative overload.
One of the most compelling data points is a graph featured in The Harvard Business Review article, based on data the authors collected from leaders across 20 organisations. According to their findings, the more colleagues who considered the person an effective source of information and the more colleagues who wanted greater access to that person, the less engaged that person was at work.
Cross labels this phenomenon the “success syndrome” because the better you perform, the more you’re expected to fulfil everyone’s needs.
It often plays out, he said, when a leader transitions into a role of greater responsibility. That’s because they’re now dealing with two sets of relationships to manage: their new colleagues and their colleagues from their past role, who continue to approach them with requests.
Suddenly, their calendar starts filling up from the moment they arrive until the moment they leave; they’re obligated to start scheduling meetings in shorter intervals; and even once they’re home, they’re still responding to work emails.
“It’s the constant pressure of dealing with the different kinds of meetings, emails, and phone calls that starts to burn people out,” Cross said. “But just as importantly, it affects their ability to be innovative and creative and other things, too, that matter for their success from a performance standpoint.”
At the same time, Cross and colleagues have found that some people are less likely than others to burn out in these circumstances. They’re able to deal effectively with the increasing demands that come with being knowledgeable and helpful.
These people are typically more sensitive to the way they’re spending their time collaboratively, and use a number of subtle but meaningful time-management strategies.
For example, they will chunk their time so that they check email in batches instead of refreshing their inbox every two minutes. They don’t let technology dictate how long meetings need to be — even though the calendar default is 30 minutes, 15 minutes might be sufficient.
Cross and his colleagues are currently researching how to build those same capabilities in employees at risk of burning out. One strategy they suggest is looking over your calendar and emails from a four-month period and figuring out which meetings and information requests you no longer need to be a part of.
Meanwhile, organisations as a whole can take steps to prevent their most valuable employees from burning out and leaving.
Leaders need to be aware of where both routine and periodic meetings are consuming enormous amounts of time, Cross said. Senior managers should look closely at meetings and group decision-making processes to figure out if absolutely everyone involved is necessary.
In The Harvard Business Review article, the authors also recommend that leaders “show the most active and overburdened helpers how to filter and prioritise requests; give them permission to say no (or to allocate only half the time requested); and encourage them to make an introduction to someone else when the request doesn’t draw on their own unique contributions.”
The authors even go so far as to suggest that organisations hire “chief collaboration officers.”
While that may not happen on a widespread level anytime soon, at some point organisations will have to turn their attention to the effects of collaborative overload on employee effectiveness, burnout, and turnover.
Right now? “People’s time is absorbed in collaborative activities,” Cross said, “but nobody’s really paying attention.”