How You Can Combat Collaboration Overload to Improve Company Performance—and Your Own

UPDATED: January 26, 2023
PUBLISHED: January 23, 2023
colleagues working in collaboration on project

It’s been said that “two heads are better than one.” But what about four? Or even eight? While you and your fellow employees might share common goals, more collaboration doesn’t always mean the team will be successful. Sometimes, too many cooks in the kitchen (or collaboration overload) can slow the process, reduce efficiency and derail engagement.

But teamwork isn’t going away anytime soon. A 2016 Harvard Business Review article found that over the past two decades, time spent by leadership and employees in collaborative activities has grown by more than 50%. That is, they’re spending around 80% of their time on collaboration—time they’re not able to spend on their own work. In addition, technological innovations and increased emphasis on remote work make it easier to partner cross-functionally from every corner of the world. So it’s critical to get a handle on managing collaboration.

Rob Cross, author of Beyond Collaboration Overload: How to Work Smarter, Get Ahead and Restore Your Well-Being, has conducted over 800 interviews with high performers. He initially believed that collaboration overload was a completely external issue. But following those interviews, he became convinced that at least 50% of the problem lies with employees.

Here are some key questions your employees should consider to help them mitigate challenges and increase individual and company performance.

Why can collaboration overload be problematic?

Varied perspectives can increase sensitivity and expertise when brainstorming or problem-solving, but they can also cause problems. For example, if you get too many emails, sit in too many meetings or spend too much time waiting for sign-offs, you can be left with little time to complete your tasks. As a result, you can slow the entire team to the point that it’s more tortoise, less hare—even if your contribution is relatively minor.

Collaboration can also drain employees of energy. For example, perhaps your manager wants all team members to do a final readthrough of each presentation before it’s printed and finalized. That could cause burnout for people who are working longer days or weekends to complete the additional tasks.

What if colleagues view me as a poor team player?

If you automatically say “yes” to every request, you could end up working too many late nights and heading toward the verge of overwhelm. If you’re stressed and stretched too thin with collaboration overload, you won’t be at your best. The fix? Put your oxygen mask on first by communicating clearly and transparently. When you receive a request, let the requester know what you have on your plate and the relevant timelines. Then work with them or your leader to prioritize your time and responsibilities. The answer to whether you can help and when you can do it will reveal itself.

What if I’m the only one who knows how to do x, y or z?

Are you really the only person at your company who can handle a particular aspect of the project? Or are you just having difficulty giving up control? Along with a potential loss of control, the desire for accomplishment and the need to be right can lead people to insert themselves unnecessarily. Doing this can delay timelines, reduce efficiency and create more meetings and emails.

Part of the benefit of being on a team is being able to depend on others. “Delegation” isn’t a dirty word—it can free you to focus on other tasks, take advantage of more opportunities and balance priorities. And when you have more time, you can finish your critical tasks sooner and avoid being the cause of gridlock. If you’re the only one who knows how to handle a task, consider helping other team members to expand their skill sets. Not only is that important for day-to-day operations, but imagine if you were out sick or unreachable for some reason. A lack of cross-training could negatively impact a project or cause service interruptions. Don’t wait until you’re faced with a potential crisis to build up the capabilities of your team.

Don’t I have to weigh in? Isn’t that part of my responsibilities?

If you don’t know, ask! Work with your leader to clarify and communicate your responsibilities to your team. When your team knows who owns what part of the process, you can set expectations and plan your time accordingly. And if there’s ever a disruption in the workflow, you know who can resolve it.

This process has existed for years. Isn’t it the best way to do this?

According to Rob Cross, “people who collaborate well get back 18% to 24% of their time.” So if you have a recommendation to improve something and reduce collaboration overload, speak up!

Let’s say your team has a weekly hour-long meeting, and you notice you spend much of the hour catching up on everyone’s weekends. You might suggest having an agenda for the meeting. Then, once you review all the discussion points, attendees are free to leave and work on something else. Or you might experiment with scheduling 30 minutes for the meeting. See if you can fit your discussion in and still leave a few minutes for socializing.

Maybe you believe there are too many people in your meetings. One solution could be to have everyone attend the initial kickoff, and only a few key players attend each meeting after that. Then, the rest of the team could stay informed via email. By framing your recommendations as a way to improve efficiency, you’re demonstrating your leadership skills and saving your team valuable time.

Photo by Ivanko80/Shutterstock

Jill McDonnell is a Chicago-based content writer and communications professional. She has a bachelor's degree in magazine journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a master's degree in public relations and advertising from DePaul University. She is currently at work on a psychological thriller novel.