When striving for a culture of “collaboration” kills your business

We conducted a focus group about a year ago with a group of business leaders around the idea of organizational values and culture.   In this focus group, we presented seven key values, based on research that defined organizational culture.   The goal was to see what these professionals thought about these seven values in the context of a broader assessment product.  And whether this values set could predict a company’s culture in order to match candidates to cultures that align with individual the candidates’ values.

Often things like this come down to semantics, but one piece of feedback where there was agreement was that the value of “collaboration” is something all companies want. Is this really what we meant or did we need to change the name of this value to reflect more of something that could be seen on a continuum?  Many of the others values we presented were viewed as a continuum that didn’t lend the value to be seen as right or wrong, just different in different work environments.

We haven’t changed the name of this value yet and maybe we will, but in reflecting on the feedback and on experience working with a variety of companies that try to promote a collaborative culture, I have seen the dark side of it.

The dark side of a focus on collaboration comes in the form of it sabotaging organizational health.  It flows something like this from a behavioral perspective:

  1. In the name of collaboration, we have to have “everyone” involved in order to make a decision big or small.
  2. Because “everyone” has to be involved to make any decision, it takes forever.  Never mind that we already passed a budget that has built in decisions in it or adopted a strategy that everyone agreed upon, we still need to meet on the minutia of those efforts.  And, oh by the way, if you want to get everyone together in a meeting to decide on this minor detail, it will have to be in a month because everyone’s calendar is full from the other small decisions that it was decided needed everyone’s involvement that came up two months ago.
  3. People get frustrated because everything takes so long and they begin to feel like they have no control over what they were hired to do.  They don’t have any decision-making authority even if their job title warrants it.
  4. It looks like everyone needs to be involved in the decision-making process in the name of collaboration, but everyone still knows who makes the final decision or whose voice is heard the most.  So, a lot of political posturing takes place in preparation for those meetings that have to be scheduled for months out.

In the end, what is couched as “collaboration” is actually the complete opposite of it.  And the results that the “collaboration” is designed to lead to ends up being missed opportunities and high turnover because of frustration and stalled decision making.

When have you seen “collaboration” go bad?

Mary Ila Ward

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