'​​Collaboration' Doesn't Create Mediocrity, Poor Managers and Corporate Cultures Do


by Heather Yanak
​April 19, 2017

An April 13th Inc. article by Geoffrey James about collaboration and its weaknesses has been making the rounds on the management consultant social media and discussion circuit. It pulls the reader in with a flashy title, warning companies that science confirms collaboration is creating mediocrity within their organizations, it's bringing down their high-performers, and it's the thing standing in the way of their excellence. Bologna.

Data can be spun in many ways, and when the reader actually clicks on the article and digs deeper into the study ("Hot Shots and Cool Reception? An Expanded View of Social Consequences for High Performers") published in Applied Psychology that served as the basis for the James' conclusions, one quickly learns several things.  

The hypothesis for the research was that "[w]hile high performers contribute substantially to their workgroups and organizations, research has indicated that they incur social costs from peers." The sample set for the research was 350 hair stylists working in 105 salons. While essential businesses, salons are hardly a traditional corporate environment whose on-floor employees are creating research, advancing strategic business objectives through written communications and reports, or performing other activities where pressure testing ideas or getting second opinions can be crucial to the success or failure of a global initiative (although second opinions from a stylist's colleagues can be crucial to the success or failure of that new haircut you saw in a magazine and now want...I've been there). The study's authors then brought in a team of 204 management students and "constructively replicated" their findings, but again, these were students, not employees within a corporate environment. Even if we press the "I believe" button and continue along the analysis path, the study and James' article fails to dig deeper.

The study's final "[r]esults indicated that peers offered more support and also perpetrated more undermining to high performers," and that poor "peer behaviors toward high performers may be calculated and strategic rather than simply reactionary." There is no surprise in any of this, hair salon or otherwise. Pure logic and a few years spent working in a corporate environment tell you, yes: high performers contribute more substantially to work groups and they incur peers' wraths for doing so. The average performers are jealous of high-performers, so they attempt to knock them down a peg or two, whether by not effectively working together, spreading gossip, or just being generally difficult. In the end, high-performers feel frustrated, isolated, and unsupported.

James further contends that open office spaces contribute to the calamitous results of collaboration. While I'm absolutely not a fan of open office spaces within corporations, and I agree 100% they result in less employee productivity, cooperation, and job satisfaction, not more, they aren't why collaboration may be leading to frustration and departures by high-performing employees. Pinning it to them is merely a blame-shifter. Open offices make it easier for subversive behaviors to take place because staff is on display nearly every minute of the work day, but closed offices wouldn't tip the scales and solve root problems leading to the strategic menacing of high-performers.

Both the actual collaboration and open workspaces are red herrings for what is really going on here. What the study, and James' article, fails to properly address are managers' roles and the power of corporate culture in these situations.

As managers, when we recognize negative employee interactions taking place, it's our responsibility to step up and nip them in the bud. Part of a manager's role is to observe, ask questions, and foster an environment where employees feel able to raise concerns without immediately being labeled "negative." When we bury our head in the sand, shrug off a teams' snide remarks, ignore that the same employee is consistently working late to turn in group work product, colleagues not supporting one another in meetings, and countless other read flags, we are a part of the problem. When organizations do not tolerate such negative, detrimental behaviors between employees -- whether high-performers or otherwise -- and they take actions to ensure they aren't accepted (i.e., via individual coaching, team messaging, formal performance reviews, etc.), the frustration, isolation, and lack of support being experienced throughout the whole team, including by the stars, falls. The harsh reality is, employees are perpetuating poor behaviors towards their high-performing peers because they've been allowed to do so -- either by their direct managers or corporate culture, or most likely, both.  

Collaboration is not the enemy, complacency is.