Maybe people honestly don’t want to collaborate at work


Top-level executives and managers love the word collaboration. Sometimes it feels like a prevailing attitude can be, “If our teams are just collaborating, all will be well with the world!” Collaboration seems to be a synonym for togetherness in a lot of people’s minds, and because togetherness is a lovable family concept we cherish and promote at the holidays, maybe business managers think, “Oh, that will make everything better here too!” Ironically, that’s not how things work at all.

And here’s another wrinkle: what if people honestly don’t want to collaborate?

Susan LaMotte has been in Human Resources for 17 years; she now has a company that focuses on a “Whole Self” model of looking at employee engagement issues — namely, we tend to think of engagement as related to the work experience, when in reality we should look at the employees instead. And when you look at employees, you need to remember that their lives are more than just work — they bring personal issues and concerns and moral victories and family drama in to the office with them every day. That’s life, but that’s not how we often think about employees. (This, I’d argue, is in large part because the Baby Boomer generation — who have shaped many of our ideas about work — tend to be very driven to keep work and personal life separate.)

LaMotte wrote an article for Harvard Business Review about her company’s work, and please note this section:

One of our clients was a $1 billion services company with a plan to grow to $5 billion. They had a detailed strategic plan in place that included increased collaboration and innovation necessary to grow the business. The company was already introducing activities in the workplace to increase collaborative behavior but it wasn’t taking hold.

So in our research we asked employees, many of whom were individual contributors, where they spent their energy outside of work — the external self portion of the model.

Without fail, over 90% of respondents cited individual activities: cooking, running, knitting, cycling, reading. Outside of family time, few engaged in collaborative, group-minded activities, or really wanted to. Combine this with their roles as individual contributors during the workday and it’s clear why adapting to a more collaborative workplace wasn’t easy or comfortable for them. One employee summed it up this way: “Everyone’s in their own little world here.”

Look down near the bottom of that quote — adapting to a more collaborative workplace wasn’t easy or comfortable for them.

Makes sense, right?

This somewhat explains the idea of silos, too; I do believe people — and of course this is a generalization to some extent — are probably more comfortable doing their project and their thing and their work that they understand, as opposed to being brought into a group that would require new context and new politics and new navigation of responsibilities. People are OK with that when they get promoted because that involves someone vetting you and more money, but to do that without either of those things happening is a lot to ask.

Think about the word “cross-functional.” Whenever you say that in a business context, half the room (if not more) snickers or rolls their eyes. But in reality, “cross-functional” should be embraced. People should want to learn new roles and new tasks and have a broader context for the organization they work in and who does what, etc. But very few people really do. People instantly view it as a buzzword or some management bullshit, even though real cross-functionality might benefit both the individual and the organization.

That attitude stems from the same place: people don’t honestly want to collaborate. I think they want their thing and their space. I could be very wrong about this, but that research above is interesting.

Ted Bauer

One Comment

  1. You’ve hit the nail on the head with this, thanks! I’ll need to revisit many of my assumptions about teams and collaboration.

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