Team Management

How to Identify and Avoid Collaboration Overload

Jeff Haden Inc. columnist and small business management expert 

Collaboration is a good thing. 

But collaboration tool overload—and with it, collaboration overload—is also a thing.

Take meetings, whether formal or informal, long considered the go-to mode for collaboration.  Conference room gatherings and chats theoretically create an excellent opportunity to problem-solve together, think more creatively, and build upon and enhance each other’s ideas. 

Except meetings also tend to make people dumber. 

Collaboration can make team members less smart

Virginia Tech study found that individual IQs dropped approximately 15 percent when people were assigned to small groups and asked to solve a problem. 

Why? The underlying premise of creating a team, however temporary—in short, creating an environment where collaboration can take place—is that ideas can be floated, feedback can be shared, and the best ideas can not only rise to the top but also be improved by the power of the group. 

Unfortunately, “junior” members of the group—whether in hierarchy or just in terms of their own perception of their “status” within the group—are most likely to experience the momentary drop in IQ.  

And if a participant’s ideas or contributions get criticized, however gently, he or she experiences a significant drop in IQ. The reason? Confidence, or lack thereof. No one performs as well as they possibly can when they don’t feel confident.

Most people who get criticized in a public setting not only feel less confident, they also experience a drop in perceived status. Which makes them feel “junior.” Which makes them feel less smart. (Maybe that’s why Stanford research shows that meetings with more than seven or eight attendees are significantly less productive than those with less.)

And the downward IQ spiral continues.

Large group collaboration can result in groupthink

More research: A study conducted at Boston College assessed the value of connectivity and information flow in large teams. One set of teams were told to share information with the entire team, like in a mass Slack channel. The other set of teams were told to only share information with one or at the most two people on the team. 

What happened? The “share information with everyone” team did a much better job of gathering and disseminating information. Makes sense. But they were significantly worse at reaching a (smart) conclusion about the data they shared. Instead of sharing a number of different opinions and then working through the options to arrive at the best answer, they quickly settled on one (almost always incorrect) conclusion. 

The “share with one or two people” group didn’t have that problem. Since they could collaborate as easily, they were less likely to latch on to someone else’s opinion. They were less likely to seek consensus. They had more time to think, explore, and do their own analysis… and then run their ideas by one or two people they trusted instead of the large (and therefore more intimidating) group.

According to the researchers, more people leads to more information. More data. More input. But fewer ideas. Fewer suggestions. Fewer potential solutions. In simple terms, the best way to “collaborate” is to keep the number of collaborators small—maybe one or two people. 

Not only will that result in better ideas, but the best ideas will also be more likely to rise to the top.  

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Recognize and get rid of collaboration overload

It’s hard to identify collaboration overload. If holding a meeting—or suggesting that your employees meet—is your default leadership move, your employees will follow along. (They won’t necessarily like it, since the only person that likes a meeting is the person who called the meeting, but they probably won’t tell you that.)

Take a step back and consider how you manage your team:

  • Do you hold regular meetings to share information? In particular, do you hold frequent all-hands meetings, since they are such an efficient way to communicate? (At least for you, anyway.)
  • Do you see a full calendar as a proxy for productivity?
  • Do you monitor collaboration channels to evaluate employee activity, responsiveness, etc.?
  • Do you have to struggle to get a meeting “going”? To get everyone focused, enthusiastic, and on-point?

If so, your team likely suffers from collaboration overload. 

It’s okay to hold one short, daily “all-hands” meeting to provide brief updates, identify problems, prioritize tasks, and allow participants to ask for help. But you don’t need two. Or four. And you definitely don’t need to ask people to meet when what you share could have been communicated in an email and read by your team when it is convenient for them—not you.

It’s also okay to hold occasional meetings. Just make sure you “cluster” those meetings during specific times of the day so your employees can take advantage of long, uninterrupted blocks of time to actually get things done. Because meetings aren’t an outcome. Meetings aren’t a deliverable. Meetings aren’t a result. Meetings are a tool used to generate outcomes, deliverables, and results. The shorter and less frequent, the better.

It’s also okay to ask your employees to collaborate. But consider creating “collaboration windows” where people will be available for calls, chats, etc. That way they can better plan their days—and will be more willing to collaborate since they know that, during those time periods, cooperation is not only expected but desired.

And don’t worry that a seeming decrease in “teamwork” will negatively impact productivity. Bain research found that in “top performing companies” (in terms of growth, profit, product service excellence, etc.), the top 25 percent of major corporations tend to waste 50 percent less time on “unnecessary and ineffective” collaboration than other companies. Even saving half of a day per week for all employees makes a dramatic difference in organizational success.

Imagine what your employees could do with an “extra” half day. Or more.

Remember, collaboration—much less constant connectivity—doesn’t create engagement and responsibility. Feeling a sense of ownership starts with feeling responsible, feeling independent, and feeling like you have the authority to make smart decisions. 

Your employees will care the most when they feel trusted to make things—the right things— happen. And that can only happen when they have focused, uninterrupted time to make things happen.

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Jeff Haden
Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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