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Are You Frozen by Too Much Collaboration and Teamwork?

June 22, 2020

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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-plus when teamwork became a popular concept in the early nineties in both the public and private sectors. Plenty of consultants and authors have made 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.

One interesting book provokes some thinking on the topic of collaboration and teamwork. Jake Breeden, a communications and leadership consultant, 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.

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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 comfortable tendency for organizational group think.

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 three decades in Russia; Cuba remains a basket case.

It’s the human condition that 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.

There’s no definitive answer as to just how people should collaborate and form teams, except to simply say, it all depends. After all, we’re dealing with human beings, each possessing their unique strengths, weaknesses, gifts, and warts.

Take some time to reflect on this post. Initiate a conversation with your co-workers on this topic. Be open to outcome; don’t go into it with a pre-conceived notion.

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

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