How To Get Off The Collaboration Hamster Wheel

Rodger Dean Duncan, Contributor

«Collaboration» can come with many pitfalls. But when it’s done right, great things can be … [+] accomplished.


At first blush, the notion of collaborating can have a warm and fuzzy air about it. You know, “We’re all in this together. Go, team!”

But despite the feel-good slogans, collaboration can be a minefield. People have different skills and talents. Different personalities. Different biases. Different goals. Different tendencies under pressure. They sometimes pull in different directions.

You know the cliché: different strokes for different folks.

So, many people could use help in using collaboration to produce good results while maintaining (and actually strengthening) relationships.

A good resource is Dr. Deb Mashek, a social psychologist who helps business leaders navigate the relationships that put timelines, bottom lines, and workplace morale at risk. She’s been an invited speaker on collaboration and viewpoint diversity at leading organizations including the United Nations and the American Psychological Association.

Her book is Collabor(h)ate: How to Build Incredible Collaborative Relationships at Work (even if you’d rather work alone.

Rodger Dean Duncan: There have been scores of books written on the subject of teamwork and collaboration. What do you regard as your most important contribution to the discussion?

Deb Mashek: There are a lot of wonderful resources out there on the topic of teamwork and collaboration. My unique contribution to the conversation stems from my background as a close relationships researcher and collaboration designer. I have spent more than two decades researching, teaching, and applying the science of relationships. In Collabor(h)ate, I introduce readers to insights culled from the research, showing how they can be applied to improve their workplace relationships.

Duncan: The idea of collaboration certainly sounds good to many people. When it works well, what are the key benefits?

Mashek: Great collaboration is a huge competitive advantage for organizations of all shapes and sizes and across sectors. This is true whether we’re talking about for-profit companies or non-profit organizations. When the collaborative ecosystem is healthy, individual contributors are happier and more engaged, teams are more creative and effective, and organizations are more efficient and robust. Everyone wins when the organs in the organization are working well together. While always desirable, this is especially important amid economic downturn where everyone is trying to do more with less.

Duncan: When collaboration fizzles, what are the costs to individuals, teams, and organizations?

Mashek: Collaboration headwind costs individuals, teams, and organizations.

For example, individuals in low-quality collaborative relationships report high anxiety, high depression, and low job satisfaction. They carry the stress of the lackluster collaboration home with them, contributing to high frustration and high burnout. Data from Simpli5 found that almost a third of their sample had considered leaving their job due to negative team experiences.

Dr. Deb Mashek


Of course, it’s hard for any team to hum along, much less generate deep value, when the people on that team are checked out, engaged in turfiness, or otherwise feeling miserable. As a result, a team’s productivity, innovation, and efficiency suffer when collaboration fizzles.

All of this costs organizations. Weak solutions and products emerge. Great people walk. Customers get caught in the crossfire. When collaborations fizzle, the organization takes a hit in terms of innovation, timelines, and ultimately the bottom line.

Duncan: What are some of the most common speed bumps or potholes on the road to effective collaboration?

Mashek: Common potholes include people not doing what they say they’re going to do, taking credit for others’ work, taking a “my way or the highway” approach to project development or implementation, and creating fires for others due to a lack of organization or preparedness.

Those are all examples of things individuals do that hurt collaboration. Team processes can also undermine effective collaboration. These include generating solutions before defining the problem, failing to be thoughtful or intentional about who should be in the room and why, and failing to design their time together in a way that actually advances the shared work rather than making everyone feel like they’re on a hamster wheel.

Pitfalls exist at the organizational level, too. For example, companies may proclaim collaboration as a core value, but then fail to invest the resources necessary to cultivate a collaborative culture.

Duncan: You cite research showing that while many colleges require students to participate in group projects, few of them offer training in collaboration and group dynamics. Why the gap? Why do school administrators seem to have such a blind spot?

Mashek: College students are assigned a lot of group work. Data I collected in partnership with College Pulse showed that more than a third of our respondents had been assigned three or more major group projects that semester.

We asked the students how much training, if any, their college had provided for ways to make team-based projects more effective, enjoyable, or productive. A whopping 65% of respondents said they had received no training. Another 22% said they had received “A few minutes” of training. My conversations with business school students and professors suggest the training deficit continues in graduate school.

When collaboration isn’t working, people often feel like they’re on a hamster wheel.


Why is that? There are a couple drivers at play here.

First, there’s a myth out there that, as social creatures, we’re either good or bad at this relationship thing, so why bother trying to help people become better at it.

Second, professors themselves are unlikely to have ever received training in the critical skill of collaboration (and a lot of academic spaces incentivize lone wolf behavior). They may not know what to cover or how.

Third, because the word collaboration itself is often used as a catch-all for all forms of working together, it sits inside a conceptual black box that makes it difficult to figure out what exactly good collaboration looks like; and those who excel at it may not be able to identify the behaviors that make them successful.

Finally, as anyone who has spent any time teaching and creating curricula knows, it’s impossible to fit everything into a class, a course, or a major. Something has to give. Because, on the surface, collaboration feels like something that’s more “nice to have” than essential, and in combination with the drivers mentioned earlier, it gets sidelined. This is a huge disservice both to student learning and to their future employability and effectiveness.

Duncan: How can leaders create a work environment that’s most conducive to successful collaboration?

Mashek: If you want to create an environment that’s most conducive to successful collaboration, you need to think holistically about the collaboration ecosystem.

First, you need collaborative individuals. Collaborative individuals are skilled at the nuts and bolts of shared work—basic things like communication, time management, project management, and how to structure and engage effectively in meetings. They also have positive beliefs about the value of collaboration and are likely able to point to a history of enjoyable collaborations with others. They also believe that others can be counted on and they are comfortable leaning on others, when needed.



Second, you want these individuals to be engaged in collaborative relationships. Collaborative relationships are characterized by two features. They are high quality, meaning that the people in the relationship feel good about the other person. They are also highly interdependent, meaning that each person’s outcomes are tied to some extent to the other’s behavior—we sink or swim as a team.


Fuente: PMideas (How To Get Off The Collaboration Hamster Wheel).