JoAnn Hackos, CIDM Director

In 2015, Best Practices focused on collaboration, with many speakers extoling the value of increased collaboration, especially with other parts of the organization. We did not look at the danger of too much collaboration.

An article in the June 2016 issue of the Harvard Business Review focuses on the downside of collaboration. Rebecca Shambaugh addresses the problem in “The Fine Line Between a Collaborative Employee and One Who Doesn’t Get Enough Done.” She tells the story of manager, Tony, and up and coming staff member, Susan, who is so collaborative that she fails to focus on what is most important among her responsibilities.

Susan expects a promotion to the senior leadership team. She is a hard worker, well-liked, and frequently invited to take part in interdepartmental activities. However, Tony believes she needs to more decisive, directive, and more willing delegate activities that she really shouldn’t be spending time on.

Shambaugh reflects that problem is often more prevalent among women, especially those who report to male bosses. She believes that in general, women are more likely to want to help others and tend to gravitate toward collaborative activities. They are rewarded for these tendencies at the same time that the tendencies hurt their chances for promotion.

In this article, Shambaugh has advice not for the women but for the bosses who want them to succeed and move ahead.

Managers must ensure that they provide goal-oriented feedback for women employees who might be too collaborative. Shambaugh’s research demonstrates that too often, women receive personal feedback rather than goal-oriented feedback. It’s important, she believes, that women get feedback that helps them understand how their work needs to be directed toward strategic organizational and corporate goals.

The boss might reiterate, for example, that the employee needs to accomplish a focused set of business goals in a specific time frame. A goal statement of that sort turns the review away from personal behaviors toward what must be the end result.

Such a goal statement can become part of an overall discussion for Susan of what it will take to get promoted. A manager needs to be objective in linking promotion with strategic objectives, helping the staff member identify what is most important for her to achieve and in what time frame. While collaboration with other organizations may be part of the activities moving someone toward a promotion, collaboration itself should not be the goal.

Clearly, collaboration is important to an organization’s success, building valuable relationships with other key parts of the organization. But it also can become a time sink. A naturally collaborative individual needs guidance in avoiding the fire fighting, deadline focus, and day-to-day actions that can easily obscure a larger and more significant goal.

Shambaugh believes that women in the workplace are often perceived as overly detail oriented or excessively collaborative or even perfectionists. Excessive attention to detail is seen as detrimental to moving to higher levels of responsibility. Gender differences are real enough but should not become a determining factor in business success or in promotions.

Too often, we see our detail-oriented colleagues never considered for promotion beyond technical publications. Is that result due to differences of style that should not be blocks or actual gaps in focus on bigger goals? Shambaugh insists that management must look beyond the gender bias of different styles of work and focus on the real results that women achieve.

A manager who helps an employee see the bigger picture and focus on clearly articulated goals will go a long way toward overcoming the cultural biases that often dominate the workplace, especially in highly technical organizations.