Collaboration is B@##S&%^T
Mankind started the evolutionary process by moving from independent apes to ones that could work together for a common goal. This was collaboration at its earliest. The group participated together. A shared effort and burden became the process for a common reward.
Early civilization exploded in places where people could come together and pool their resources, allowing them to specialize in a craft instead of engaging in subsistence farming or hunting.” Later, philosophers created a system in which all of society’s contributors would share equal participation in its leadership process, and thus democracy was founded. Present day, we can see this model of collaboration in team sports, in which members of a team rise above the selfish pursuit of securing individual goals and instead focus on the team goal of winning.
Now, collaboration is a modern-day workplace essential. I’m not talking about simply helping but co-creating. Teaming has reached its pinnacle in today’s workplace and become more than a value – it’s now a bedrock of enterprise. Individuals are no longer just master craftsman but teams of people with skills. Together they work on highly complex problems like putting a man on the moon.
What must be good in one area must be good in all areas, right? Or, said another way, if it is good in small doses it should be great in large doses. Thus, the strong push for collaboration across all industries has led to a similar push in school settings, leading to an increased focus on activities which demand collaboration and build teamwork skills.” Logically, it mimics the workplace. Team based projects also drives greater efficiency for teachers. The decrease in the amount of babysitting and grading papers supported a drive for more project work. While this process taught teamwork, it also taught “group slack.”
Now the workplace mimics the classroom and all that is found is collaborative work environments. Has this expectation of collaboration come from the classroom? Has it come from weak managers not wanting to give a specific individual an explicit assignment? Or is this the result of a desire to share the burden across many and retain the ambiguity flex of work generalization and constant time availability? Instead of giving one-person responsibility for completing a task, managers in collaborative environments assign tasks to the whole group, lowering individual accountability. Instead of saying “You are in charge,” workplaces have cultivated an environment of forced assistance and dependency in which all employees are responsible for the output of all other employees and those who are seen as ‘helpful’ are regarded in better light than those who are actually skilled.”
This has carried over to the interview process. A main question interviewer ask is, “What is your preferred teamwork style?” Your only choice is to brand yourself a “loner,” which is typically seen as a negative, or you can reply that you are a collaborator who helps ensure that everyone gets a piece of the work and shares the credit?” This trend then carries on into employment, upon which you must be willing to drink the Kool-Aid and embrace the ‘no-I-in-team’ ethos or risk projecting the image of someone who is disagreeable. If you say that you’re not a fan of working in collaborative environments, you are classified as a “poor fit.” Good luck getting the job with that attitude.
Collaboration and teamwork have been embedded in our human psyche for the last forty years. From Sesame Street to teaching pedagogy, collaboration has been constantly reinforced to the point that our collective conscious just assumes that it is correct. “Teamwork makes the dream work,” collaboration has become synonymous with a net positive gain, and its inherent ‘value’ is sacred in modern culture.”.
However, when we look at research in group creativity, individuals consistently outperform collaborative efforts. Much of this performance lag is based on social pressures and the potential of losing social status. This suggests that maybe, just maybe, collaboration isn’t always better than working as an individual.
Is this because we want to apply a good thing to all situations believing that it is a one size fits all? Or has the branding overwhelmed the data? We keep getting pushed into focusing more on the act of collaboration than on the quality of the products or services we’re producing. We’ve lost sight of the fact that there are inopportune times for collaboration.
Not all employees are created equal, nor do they all have the same work ethic. Following the Pareto principle, only 20% of the team provides most of the value. The remaining 80% fall into the “group slack” categorization. This may be because the 20% are too aggressive, the 80% are too passive, or a little of both. Either way, it is very rare for an entire team to fully contribute.
What is lost in the collaboration process is ownership, accountability for a product and outcomes. This decreases the tradesmanship and pride that a craftsman places in their work. Instead of making something special, employees simply become a cog in the greater machine. In turn, quality inevitably dips, leaving management wondering why.
Over-collaboration also adds to organizational confusion. The approach ensures that blame is shared when things go wrong and everyone gets to celebrate when things go right. This is the adult equivalent of the participation trophy. Under this light, accomplishments lose their luster. Working as a collective creates a shadow for poor craftsmanship and fosters an unwillingness to develop apprentices.
I’m not here to rail entirely on collaboration. Teaming up and pooling resources is a brilliant aspect of mankind’s development. My focus is to apply collaboration in optimal conditions where it is most likely to lead to success. Major projects of great complexity that require multiple subject matter experts, integrated efforts where resources are spread amongst an organization, and non-routine project work are all great examples of situations when collaboration can elevate a product.
Before you disagree, ask yourself whether you are capable of working independently. Collaboration is the risk-free option; it’s safe if you’re afraid of making mistakes. How sure are you of yourself, of your team, and of whether you can operate independently?
Mainly, I ask managers to rethink their position. When work must be accomplished, are you asking who on our team has the capability to do it? If it does need to be a shared effort, ask why. Empower your team to try tasks on their own and sever the crutch of co-dependency – you’ll be surprised at the results.
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