Too Much of a Good Thing: Collaborative Overload - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #703

Too Much of a Good Thing: Collaborative Overload

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While the power of collaboration and teamwork is well-documented, the potential dark side of collaboration — for example, the same people in an organization being over-burdened by requests from others because they’ve acquired a reputation as collaborators — is ignored. A team of researchers warn of the dangers of ‘collaborative overload.’


In the 21st century interconnected, global, cross-functional, flat-hierarchy, silo-busted world of business, collaboration and teamwork are viewed as one of the foundational pillars of success, at both the organizational level and individual level. 

Such is the generally accepted wisdom. Even collaboration, however, is not immune to the dangers of ‘too much of a good thing.’ Using a variety of academic studies including their own research in support, Rob Cross of Babson College along with Reb Rebele and Adam Grant of Wharton reveal why emphasizing and encouraging collaboration can sometimes be counterproductive.

The first problem is that collaboration can become a heavy burden. It is a case of no good deed goes unpunished: if you become known as someone who is willing to give their time to team efforts and helping others, you become the first port of call for any new request. 

For a period of time, your collaborative nature enhances your performance and reputation… until the virtuous cycle turns into a vicious cycle. The requests keep coming, and you become overworked and less effective, other responsibilities are neglected, and over time just how much you have taken on for others becomes hidden as exceptional requests become routine expectations and as demand for your time and effort flows from a variety of sources.

It’s also important to distinguish between the different types of collaboration, based on the resources involved. Collaboration can involve sharing informational resources (knowledge and skills), social resources (contacts and access), and personal resources (time and energy). The demand on personal resources is the most damaging, not only because of the time and energy involved — informational or social resources can often be quickly shared — but also because of the depletion effect that occurs. In other words, information or contacts shared with another are still available for your use; in contrast, if you dedicate time and energy to another’s project, that is less time and energy for your own.

Collaboration becomes even more of a burden because, as their research with 300 organizations revealed, the burden is not evenly distributed. A meagre 3% to 5% of employees, according to this study, provided between 20% and 35% of the collaborative efforts in their organizations. 

Just how damaging ‘collaborative overload’ becomes for the individual and the organization was illustrated in another study by the authors, which focused on business unit line leaders in 20 organizations. The data in the study showed that the people who were seen as the best sources of information and in the highest demand as collaborators were also the people who scored lowest on engagement and career satisfaction. As a result, according to further research, they either left the organization, or stayed and slowly became carriers of disengagement, contaminating their colleagues. 


The researchers suggest two paths for eliminating or reducing the insidious danger of collaborative overload: redistribute the work and reward effective collaboration. 

Redistributing the work involves the following steps:

  • Understand the existing supply and demand of collaboration. As noted above, demanding collaborative efforts are often unnoticed. Companies should use the full spectrum of tools available — from employee surveys to sophisticated network tracking programs — to monitor the value, type, origin and destination of collaboration requests.
  • Encourage behavioural change. Teach the most generous employees how to say no — or to at least limit their contribution. And collaborative-minded employees should also learn to seek out activities and projects that energize them, not exhaust them. The ‘help seekers’ should also learn new habits, for example by reconsidering whether all of their meetings are truly required, or whether their risk-averse nature is leading them to unnecessary permission or feedback requests on decisions they should be making on their own.
  • Leverage technology and physical space. Software programs exist that enable open discussion threads and access to network resources. And co-locating collaborators can also ease the exchange of resources.
  • Make structural changes. For example, give lower-level managers the authority they need to manage their units without unnecessary exchanges and interactions with higher-level leaders. Staff positions dedicated solely to managing collaborative efforts can also reduce bottlenecks and collaboration frustrations.

The researchers are not advocating the rejection of collaboration; they are simply warning of the often-invisible challenge of collaborative overload. Reward systems can contribute to this overload when individual performance is rewarded over collaboration. The result is that many ‘stars’ in a company reap the benefits of focusing on their own work, leaving more generous and organization-focused individuals to pick up the slack. For that reason, rewarding the people who perform well as individuals and as collaborators will go a long way to encourage more people to shoulder the collaborative burden. 



Collaborative Overload. Rob Cross, Reb Rebele & Adam Grant. Harvard Business Review (January-February 2016). 

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Idea conceived

February 4, 2016

Idea posted

May 2018
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