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Stop over-collaborating before you burn out

Stephen Chambers

Pressure to collaborate exhaustively with colleagues and clients is escalating, and overload is a real and constant hazard, write Rob Cross, Scott Taylor and Deb Zehner for Harvard Business Review.

While an organisation’s culture sets its expectations for coworking, it’s often the demands you place on yourself to satisfy them that can tip the balance.


Companies reap the rewards of such consistent communication in terms of accelerated innovation and more efficient services for clients but, for the individual, it reduces the time available for valuable independent thinking, decision making and solo projects.

It’s tempting to try and do it all, but that can’t be sustained if you want to maintain efficiency – you need to take charge of your working life before it overwhelms you.


It’s easy to blame outside sources for punishing drains on our time, but creating a better balance is often about changing your own mindset and habits, according to the authors.

They have done extensive studies into collaborative overload – interviewing 100 men and 100 women about their experiences in the workplace – and identified the most likely scenarios to prompt excessive collaboration, as well as some simple ways to deal with it.

“We uncovered best practices in three broad categories: beliefs (understanding why we take on too much); role, schedule, and network (eliminating unnecessary collaboration to make time for work that is aligned with professional aspirations and personal values); and behaviour (ensuring that necessary or desired collaborative work is as productive as possible),” write the authors.


They put overload into two categories:

1) Surge. This happens suddenly – when you’re promoted or are asked to help with a special project in addition to your usual workload.

2) Slow-burn. This kind of overload creeps up over time as we take on more work. An ever-increasing network of collaborators is demanding your input and you don’t want either to let them down or to appear incompetent.

Understanding why we allow ourselves to be overburdened is a valuable first lesson. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Are your seeking acknowledgement of your capabilities?
  • Do you want to influence outcomes?
  • Are you afraid of handing over control of certain projects?
  • Do you mistrust your team’s ability to do a good job without you?
  • Do you pride yourself on being considered a great team player?
  • Are you anxious not to “miss out”?
  • Do you like ticking achievements off your list, not matter how insignificant?

Most of the businessmen and women surveyed by Cross, Taylor and Zehner could answer yes to at least one of those questions.


From the efficient collaborator’s perspective, taking on any new thing means not participating, or at least reducing their involvement, in another.

Efficient collaborators recognise that:

  • Small achievements – such as clearing you email inbox – aren’t usually the important ones.
  • You will only add real value to a project when you have genuine expertise to offer.
  • Self worth can be boosted by encouraging others to step up to do a job efficiently.


Over-collaboration won’t solve itself. The authors recommend you thoroughly review your role, your schedule and your network:

  • Clarify your principal aims and the values you want to project within the parameters of your organisation; only accept collaborations that coincide with these.
  • Regularly review appointments and emails to identify recurring collaborations that are least productive or could be passed on to a team member.
  • Recall decisions where your input wasn’t really required, or your expertise was outdated. Which team members could have contributed instead?
  • Make your interests and priorities clear to collaborators inside and outside your organisation.
  • Factor in time to collaborate on projects that matter to you.


Ensuring collaboration is useful means actively increasing its efficiency. Key pointers from Cross, Taylor and Zehner include:

  • Making meetings more productive and concise. Insist on a pre-circulated agenda and a short post-meeting report. Pre-set the length of time you are able to allot to the meeting and don’t deviate.
  • Establishing norms for email communications – maximum number of words, bullet structures, “reply all” as standard, for example.
  • Utilising tools like Google Docs to collaborate online in an appropriate investigative or unifying format.
  • Recognising when complexity or sensitivity demands a phone call or face-to-face chat.
  • Establishing early on what you and your collaborator want to achieve.
  • Put the emphasis on the quality rather than the quantity of your collaborations.

Heavy collaboration demands are a fact of modern business life. How you choose to deal with them is a personal decision. Choose to collapse under the weight, or create an effective strategy.

Source Article: Collaboration Without Burnout
Author(s): Rob Cross, Scott Taylor and Deb Zehner