Why We’re Burning Out on Collaboration

Collaboration is supposed to boost productivity and innovation by letting us exchange ideas, insights, and resources. But the more Rob Cross, the Edward A. Madden Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College, spoke to business leaders at 300 companies across the United States, the more he realized that too much collaboration, or the wrong kind, has the opposite effect. Constant requests to share our time can be addictively distracting as well as flattering, but accepting them all denies us time to focus and decompress. Cross’s research suggests that when we default to collaboration as the best choice in every situation, we cripple our productivity, engagement, and even health.

In his book Beyond Collaboration Overload: How to Work Smarter, Get Ahead, and Restore Your Well-Being, Cross explores why it’s so difficult to be discerning about when, how, and with whom we work; why it’s imperative to say “yes” less often; and how to do that. He claims this more intentional approach to collaboration lets people claw back the equivalent of a full workday each week and redirect it to collaboration that’s actually valuable rather than just seeming to be. In the process, they can boost their own growth, purpose, and resilience – and help their coworkers become more efficient and enthusiastic, too.

Headshot of Rob Cross
Rob Cross is the Edward A. Madden Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College.

We asked Cross what leaders can do to model a smarter, saner approach to collaboration and to foster it throughout their organization.

Q: Conventional wisdom says we work better when we work together, but your research suggests that a lot of collaboration just gives us the illusion of being key players while making us stressed and burned out. Where have we gone wrong?

Rob Cross: There are huge benefits to collaboration. Most innovations are a product of people getting ideas from their social environment and interacting across different domains. But I think a lot of us have lost the sense of what we’re trying to accomplish by collaborating.

In today’s work culture, almost everyone feels a constant need to prove they’re indispensable. Between globalization, the pressure to be agile and nimble, and all the new collaborative technologies, people feel like they have to be available on demand and that they don’t have the freedom to delegate.

Even before the pandemic, business leaders told me they were spending about 85% of their work week on meetings, e-mails, instant messages, and phone calls. Collaboration had become central to everyone’s work life, but we weren’t assessing its magnitude and effectiveness. Now the shift to a largely remote workplace has increased that by five to eight hours a week. People are losing their mornings, evenings, and weekends to it. On top of that, companies treat collaboration like it’s one-size-fits-all, but you can’t expect two leaders to run their teams with the same effectiveness if one team is made up of two colleagues in the same location and the other is seven people across three time zones.

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Q: The core of your approach is to create processes and boundaries that ensure that every interaction counts and eliminate those that don’t. Does climbing the leadership ladder or moving into a new role make it harder to establish limits on collaboration?

Cross: It comes down to what people think being a leader means. Some believe it compels them to take on every request and have a finger in every pie, while others feel it gives them more latitude to be judicious with their time. In interviewing hundreds of business leaders, I’ve found that as some people progress up the career ladder, they become entirely focused on their professional roles. They stop thinking about what’s reasonable to expect of themselves and start giving up the things they value outside of work. They’re the ones who burn out. But other people refuse to give up things like social activities and community involvement. Their sense of identity isn’t limited to work, so they insist on setting boundaries to preserve those aspects of themselves, and they allow their teams to do the same.

The more responsibilities someone has, the more important it is to be proactive about shaping others’ expectations. For example, they can inform their team how they prefer to be asked for input, require timelines so they can prioritize requests, and be transparent about how much time they have available.

Cover of Rob Cross's book, "Beyond Collaboration Overload"
In Beyond Collaboration, author Rob Cross explores why it’s so difficult to be discerning about when, how, and with whom we work.

Q: Can your network help you collaborate more effectively?

Cross: It depends. When your network is only people in your industry, or at your level, or with a background like yours, you’re not going to get the same fresh perspectives and innovative insights from them as you would from a broader network of people who are very different from you in experience, interests, and expertise. When an unexpected problem lands in your lap, a broader network increases your odds of knowing someone who can help you generate an unexpected solution in the time you would otherwise have spent on unproductive, nonstrategic interactions.

Q: What should business leaders do right now to start addressing collaboration overload for themselves and the people they manage?

Cross: Play offense! Stop trying to react to every demand and start creating a structure to help you decide which ones you’re going to respond to. Answering requests for expertise you acquired earlier in your career doesn’t benefit you in your current role, so no matter how much you may enjoy answering those questions, it’s better to direct them to someone with more current know-how. That frees you up to invest time in your current goals, like mentoring your team members or proposing new projects that generate revenue. Then you can start planning interactions that send you in the direction you want to go instead of any direction other people want to take you.