Two brains are better than one. Many hands make light work. The more the merrier.
Pardon all of the clichés, but they illustrate an important point: By default, most of us think that collaboration is the way to go.
When we’re stuck dealing with a difficult client, we crowdsource our colleagues for advice. When we’re tasked with developing a brilliant new marketing campaign, we put a group brainstorming session on everybody’s calendar. When we hit a roadblock in a challenging project, we pick our team members’ brains to see how they’d move forward.
Sound like your average workday? You’re in good company.
When It Comes to Collaboration, We’re All Obsessed
The importance of things like teamwork and effective collaboration have been drilled into our heads since our early school days, and now it’s easy to take this to the extreme in the workplace.
We converse and conspire with our co-workers over even the most inconsequential decisions (like whether Logan’s birthday cake should say, “Happy Birthday!” or “Happy 30th Birthday!”).
Research from McKinsey & Company found that the average knowledge worker spends 14% of their workweek communicating and collaborating internally.
That might not seem like a lot at first glance, but let’s do some quick math:
14% of an eight-hour workday equates to roughly one hour and seven minutes.
If you invest that same amount of time Monday through Friday, that comes out to approximately five and a half hours of your entire workweek.
Not such a small amount now, is it?
Without a doubt, some level of working together is necessary and even beneficial. It’s been correlated with things like a sense of community, and can even reduce employee turnover.
But still, it begs the question: Is our obsession with constant collaboration a classic case of too much of a good thing? Could it actually be—gasp!—hindering our productivity and moments of genius? 🤔
3 Not-So-Hidden Dangers Of Non-Stop Collaboration
If you bristled at even the sheer mention that collaboration might not be all it’s cracked up to be, I certainly can’t blame you. When we’re all such unwavering advocates of the value of bouncing ideas around, it seems disloyal to think otherwise now.
But hear me out: There really are some pitfalls associated with too much “together time” with your colleagues—and there’s research to back them up.
1. Constant collaboration can slow progress down.
Let’s be real: Decisions by committee never happen efficiently. When you’re forced to listen to and consider a bunch of different perspectives, opinions, suggestions, and feelings, roadblocks raise their ugly heads—and they can really slow projects down.
Could I comb through pages of research to find an academic study to back this point up? You bet. In fact, here’s one that shows how the amount of social interactions (ahem, those can also be interpreted as delays) drastically increase as a group gets larger.
But here’s what really hammers this point home: Think of the last time you and a group of friends were deciding where to eat dinner. You wanted pizza, Johnny wanted Chinese food, Kate wanted sushi, and Landon insisted that ice cream was a meal. You all went back and forth for twenty minutes before finally compromising on burgers.
Now, how long would it have taken you to make that decision alone? You already knew you wanted pizza—so not two seconds later you likely would’ve been on your way to grab a slice.
That’s a simplified example (because we all know work projects can get a little more complicated than dinner orders). However, it still accurately illustrates how too much collaboration can cause major delays. Sometimes you just need to make that executive decision to move things along.
2. Constant collaboration can generate inferior ideas.
Age-old wisdom would have you believe that putting your head together with someone else would generate superior ideas. However, science has actually found the opposite to be true.
In the study, How Intermittent Breaks in Interaction Improve Collective Intelligence, researchers observed how well people solved problems with varying degrees of interaction with their teammates. The degrees were zero interaction, intermittent interaction, or constant interaction.
They hypothesized that the group which interacted constantly would have the highest average quality in their solutions, but less variety and a more challenging time deciding on the optimal choice. In contrast, they predicted that the group with zero interaction would have a huge variety in solutions—some brilliant and some terrible—but with a low average quality.
Here’s what they concluded:
The group that collaborated intermittently had the benefits of both ends of the spectrum and the drawbacks of neither, which proves that collaboration is necessary.However, exercising some moderation when it comes to collaboration and allocating enough time to ponder independently is equally as crucial.
Much of this is because the group decision-making process is dripping with numerous psychological biases, including:
Groupthink: When our desire to conform and avoid rocking the boat leads us to less-than-optimal decisions.
Evaluation Apprehension: When our fear of being judged impairs our performance in a group setting.
When you boil it down, we’re all just desperate to fit in—and that can lead us to “dumb ourselves down.”
A classic example is psychologist Solomon Asch’s line-judgement experiment, during which groups of eight male students were shown lines of varying length and asked to take turns pointing out which line matched a reference line.
Here’s the trick: All but one of the participants were actors who were instructed to give an incorrect answer. When non-actor participants were asked to announce their answer last in the group, they yielded to the majority about 40% of the time—even though they knew the answer was obviously wrong. Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, anyone?
3. Constant collaboration can lead to social loafing.
This last point contributes to both the lack of productivity and the less-than-stellar ideas: Too much collaboration opens the door for something called social loafing.
“Social loafing is the reduction in motivation and effort when individuals work collectively compared with when they work individually,” explains a review paper authored by Steven J. Karau and Kipling D. Williams.
Basically, slackers are able to ride on the coattails of team members who actually contribute and hope that they just carry them over the finish line. Does this remind you of those group projects in college?
Not only does this mean that you aren’t getting the best value out of every single team member, but it can send the morale of a team into a steady nosedive (because nobody likes to feel taken advantage of).
And, since we’ve already established that we have the tendency to mirror other people’s behaviors in group settings, this phenomenon could actually drag down the performance and motivation of all group members—not just the natural social loafers.
How Can You Actually Change Collaboration Habits?
Constant collaboration has become an expectation and a cultural norm. That means it’s likely a staple of your organization and your work life at this point—and I recognize that’s difficult to change on your own.
Here’s the good news: While you won’t create a giant cultural shift overnight, there are a few simple steps you can take to loosen the chains of constant collaboration and give yourself some time to think independently, such as:
Sending out a detailed agenda before a meeting so people have time to generate ideas ahead of getting together.
Similarly, requesting agendas for meetings or brainstorming sessions that you’re attending (but not leading) so you have time to prepare your own ideas.
Taking diligent notes during group discussions so you can give those topics some attention and focus following that sit-down.
Suggesting that your team takes a break to think apart from the group whenever you’re struggling to achieve a consensus (rather than continuing to debate).
Yep, those are definitely small changes. But make no mistake—they can make a big difference over time.
Is Collaboration All It’s Cracked Up To Be?
We all sing the praises of collaboration, and it undoubtedly has its time, place, and benefits. However, that doesn’t mean it’s something that needs to happen constantly.
Think of it like Logan’s 30th birthday cake (hey, where’d we land on the cake message, by the way?): A little bit is a treat, but too much leaves you feeling sick, sluggish, and full of regret.