Skip to content

Are You Frozen by Too Much Collaboration and Teamwork?

October 27, 2013
Updated September 10, 2016

Workpplace Surveys So how’s that teamwork coming? Are you and your fellow co-workers doing enough collaborating?There’s been a ton written on the topic over the past two decades when teamwork became a popular concept in the early nineties in both the public and private sectors. Plenty of consultants and authors have fortunes telling us how to become team players and that individual, sole work is to be avoided. Not many people have pushed back on this front.

A new book provokes some thinking on the topic of collaboration and teamwork. Jake Breeden, a faculty member of Duke Corporate Education and a consultant who has taught corporate leaders in over two dozen countries, shares his insights on how organizations can approach collaboration through a new lens in Tipping Sacred Cows.

Breeden talks about how collaboration evolves into an organizational sacred cow when it becomes an automatic reflex among employees. And it’s initiated and led by the organization’s senior management. He explains that “automatic collaboration” occurs when people work together by “default” in contrast to “…making the purposeful, conscious choice to do so.” He argues that the default state of working should be working independently. The role of the manager-leader is to determine collaboration is necessary. As Breeden eloquently states, “The silent pull of our organization’s culture also convinces smart leaders to blindly follow sacred cows….Leaders to be wise to the seductive power of unquestioned orthodoxies.”

Take a moment to soak this up. Breeden’s viewpoint is certainly not what most employees have heard over the past two decades as organizations have responded to the siren call of teamwork and collaboration. Indeed, some would say that it’s heresy!

I’m reminded of my experience as a middle manager over 20 years ago when teamwork became the fad of the day with senior management. Everyone in the organization had to part of a team. The comment “You’re not being a team player was thrown in people’s faces if it was perceived that they were not cooperating or rocking the boat or trying to work independently. A lot of unnecessary stress was imposed on employees–and a lot of time was wasted, not to mention a lot of money on pseudo consultants.

Breeden states that when managers determine that teamwork is desirable they must also understand that accountability comes with it. He uses the expression “accountable collaboration,” meaning that everyone in the area concerned is clear on the team’s mission. He notes: “When collaboration is accountable, everyone knows everyone else’s responsibility, and they aren’t afraid to point out when the ball is dropped.”

This may come as a heretical statement, but the lesson here is don’t blindly follow the collaboration–teamwork mantra. Be your own person, refraining from the propensity for organizational group think. Take a moment to read one of my earlier posts entitled Rethinking Teams: Getting Over the Guilt Complex.

Let’s step back and look at the collaboration concept from a macro level, using what happened in Communist regimes, such as the former Soviet Union, Cuba and China (before the latter launched into state-run capitalism). Among Communism’s many foibles was driving out individuality from citizens, in the naïve belief that ostensible equality (in the presence of gross corruption) was somehow superior to democracies where capitalism was practiced. Collaboration was never attained in these totalitarian regimes.

The world has witnessed that bad soap opera, where the Soviet Union’s economy was a morass of bad product quality, indifferent employees, inefficiency and horrendously poor productivity. Unfortunately, not a lot has improved in the past two decades in Russia, and Cuba remains a basket case.

It is the human condition which thrives on individual uniqueness yet the desire to connect with others that makes us so complex. Trying to shove human beings into organizational holes slotted for pre-measured job descriptions and expectations is a fool’s errand. And dictating that everyone is on a team and must be a team player denies reality. Yet that is what typically happens each and every day in companies and public institutions.

Here’s another good book to check out on teamwork and collaboration. Morten Hansen’s Collaboration, has been out for a few years and is based on older data from the nineties; however, the message is still important today: that collaboration has its pitfalls and that managers need to be aware of them in order to remain focused on the organization’s direction and priorities. Check out this interview with Hansen.

There’s no definitive answer as to just how people should collaborate and form teams, except to simply say, it all depends!

Take some time to reflect on this post and to read the associated links. Initiate a conversation with your co-workers on this topic. Be open to outcome; don’t go into it with a pre-conceived notion. And be sure to share a comment on this blog post.


I embrace the unknown because it allows me to see new aspects of myself.

– Deepak Chopra


Workforce of the Future Footer CoverClick here to download my complimentary e-book Workforce of the Future: Building Change Adaptability, 2nd Edition.


Visit my e-Books, Resources and Services pages.

Jim TaggartTake a moment to meet Jim.

Advertisements
6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 15, 2016 5:09 am

    The key to good teamwork on committees is when those teams are given actual power by the top and their recommendations are implemented. Furthermore, the best work gets done not when people are assigned to teams, but when they voluntarily choose which team they’ll be on to solve real problems in an area that interests them. I had the good fortune to serve on several such teams, and even to direct three productive teams in my career.

    • September 15, 2016 3:49 pm

      Very helpful comments and suggestions, Lynne. Thanks for contributing.

  2. June 4, 2015 4:41 am

    Collaboration can work quite well; however, the biggest problem is that some people usually end up doing the lion’s share of the work, while others contribute little. I see this as more of a problem in schools that require group work of students than in business firms where most members of the team are motivated.

    • June 4, 2015 1:10 pm

      That’s an interesting and important perspective on learning environments, such as schools. Thanks for sharing.

  3. November 4, 2013 5:40 pm

    There is always the danger of forward progress being stymied by too much collaboration, and that can happen if managers are not aware of what sort of work lends itself to collaboration and which doesn’t. In areas of novelty, I think collaboration is important to bring in different perspectives, but when it comes to tasks that depend on individual expertise, say software coding or writing copy, people are often best left to their private thoughts to produce a work product based on their learned expertise.

    • November 4, 2013 11:43 pm

      Well said. Thanks very much for stopping by and sharing your perspective.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: