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Is Collaboration Overrated?

Tuesday, February 26, 2019
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Collaboration. It shows up on every list of top soft skills needed today. You’ve seen these lists. The order changes somewhat, but they all include communication, problem solving, creativity, work ethic, and collaboration, as well as a few more to get to the 10 items that these lists seem to require (Top 10 Skills Employers Want!). You may get the idea that you can’t train or manage today without collaboration, right? You must organize individuals into teams, and you must make sure that all people are working with others. Working alone cannot be tolerated.

Collaboration is overrated.

Let’s challenge the collaboration mentality. Yes, some projects do require diverse people to work together collaboratively to produce a result that no one person could achieve alone. But how many times does that unique situation occur? Most often, I fear, people are put together for the sake of putting people together. Let me share some concerns I have about collaboration.

Collaboration May Be Uncomfortable

I watched an online video of someone walking onto the ice at a frozen lake somewhere up north. Seems it was his job to test the thickness of the ice. He got out about 20 meters before the ice broke. Hilarious fun for the videographer and his buddies, but pretty uncomfortable for man whose life was in danger, I’d guess. I mention this because it made me rethink icebreaker activities that trainers commonly use. The truth is that many people find these activities uncomfortable.

In her book Quiet, Susan Cain suggests that up to half of us are introverts. I’m in that half, and I always found breaking the ice extremely uncomfortable. A training session is already a bit awkward: your normal schedule is disrupted, there is some apprehension about the training and the trainer, and there may be the pressure of performing for strangers. I don’t really care to know who has the same number of sisters as me or who likes the same type of vacation; I just want to get the needed information. And, as Cain points out, I am not alone.

What does this mean for you?

  • Don’t do icebreaker activities unless they are necessary. Would it matter if people left the training without knowing one another’s names?
  • Consider doing icebreakers later in the program. Let participants settle in, get a feel for the day, and have a chance to become more comfortable. Why not schedule the group activity after the first break?

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Collaboration May Be Unnecessary

Perhaps I stretched the definition of collaboration when I talked about icebreakers. Maybe you put people together to work on some task. Does the task require collaboration?

Here’s what I mean: Pixar Studios needs collaboration. A single film needs writers, illustrators, voice-over talent, editors, computer animators, technical directors, foley artists, and many more folks to come together. The film could not be completed by one individual. Pixar doesn’t need a group of people, it needs a team of people. There is a difference.

What is true of your activity? Is it a team activity or a group activity? A common complaint with group activities sounds like this: “Kim did all the work! None of us were allowed to help.” Well, if Kim could do all the work without help, it wasn’t a collaborative activity. . . it was an individual job pretending to be a team job. These situations affect morale. Some are miffed at Kim for being domineering; Kim is miffed at others for kibitzing and complaining.

As you’re planning your activity:

  • Look closely at your objective. Are you putting people together because you think you should, or because no one person can do it alone? If the latter is true, fine; if not, rethink the activity.
  • If the activity does not require a team, give the option of working with others or working alone. Say, “Feel free to work with others on this task if you’d like” instead of “Get together in groups of four” to make all participants comfortable.

Collaboration May Silence Important Voices

Another point from Quiet: Groups can be dominated by the assertive and the eloquent. But boldness or verbal skill does not equal having the best ideas. I’m sure you have witnessed this in group activities you've participated in—some people will dominate while others are mostly spectators. The spectators may have excellent ideas, but they are not forceful enough to present them. I have often thought, “I don’t think that’s the best idea, but they seem to like it, so oh well” when in groups. Yes, maybe that’s arrogance, believing my idea is better; but maybe it’s my introversion keeping a good idea off the table.

To encourage contribution from all parties:

  • Set up activities where no one person can dominate; design a way for all voices to be heard.
  • Respect processing differences—some people need more time to think through problems and to formulate answers. Don’t listen only to the quick thinkers; allow sufficient time.

We aren’t all wired for sociability and group work. The bottom line: Collaborate when necessary, not because it’s trendy, and understand that many individuals in your trainings are exactly that—individuals.

About the Author

Erik Palmer is an author, speaker, and consultant from Denver, Colorado. He focuses on improving oral communication—whether one-on-one, small group, large group, informal or formal, in-person or digital—by sharing practical, understandable ideas that help all adults become effective speakers and teachers of speaking. Erik previously spent 10 years managing an office for a prominent commodity brokerage firm, where he was the national sales leader), and trading on the floor of a Chicago commodity exchange. He also taught in one of Colorado’s premier school districts for 21 years, and was named a Teacher of the Year. A frequent presenter at conferences, Erik has given keynotes and led workshops for adults across the United States and around the world. He is the author of the ATD Press book, Own Any Occasion, as well as Well-Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students, Digitally Speaking: How to Improve Student Presentations with Technology, Teaching the Core Skills of Listening & Speaking, Researching in a Digital World , and Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning. Erik has a bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College and a master’s degree from the University of Colorado, Denver. 

5 Comments
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I'm definitely an introvert and believe all the hype about collaboration to be mostly a fad. I find training sessions and workshops, at about the halfway point, to be grueling to endure. I would much rather study and work on my own, so thanks for mentioning that option. Collaboration is great for brainstorming, delegating, reporting, and dealing with challenges that are too big for one person. In almost every other case collaboration seems to get political and become a drag on productivity.
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I like the perspective. As one of the kindred spirits in the quiet half, I often feel bowled over by dominant personalities and become frustrated with the "collaborative effort." Our training group talks often about soliciting ideas and input from all participants during a session or conversation.
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Some very good points in here, and it's timely for some internal conversations we're having in my org as well.
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