nonprofit team

Teamwork is all the rage right now. It’s often touted as an organizational value, a key to productivity, and a criterion used to hire, reward, and promote. But there’s an unpleasant and unproductive flipside to collaboration that deserves discussion. In short, too much teamwork might be burning out your best people. 

How much time do your employees spend in meetings (in-person and virtual), responding to emails, taking calls, or otherwise fielding requests from colleagues? Research shows that for many companies, it’s around 80%. That’s a lot! Furthermore, only a few—between 3% and 5%— of the company’s employees provide 20% to 35% of the most valuable collaboration.

The folks taking on the brunt of collaboration are “helpers” who have demonstrated a capability and willingness to assist. As a result, they’re getting pulled into all kinds of projects that take away from their own work. To compensate for time spent helping, they stay late, take work home, and go in early. They’re overworked, overtaxed, and not as personally productive concerning their own projects. I’m sure you can guess how this scenario ends. The helpers burnout and quit. Or worse—they burnout, stay, and breed stress and apathy.

At a time when many employees are already stressed out and stretched thin, it’s worth taking a look at the cost of collaboration versus the value it’s adding to your organization and implementing changes where necessary. The article Collaborative Overload (2016), recently published by the Harvard Business Review, provides insight into how to do just that. Here’s what the authors suggest:

1. Identify Employees At Risk

According to the researchers, the first step is to figure out who at your organization is at-risk for collaboration burnout. Surveys and 360-degree feedback are tools that can help identify who is spending the bulk of their work on collaborative activities versus personal work. There’s also a good chance that you can identify employees anecdotally. Who does everyone ask for help?

2. Know the Types of Resources Collaboration with Your Nonprofit Team Requires

The next step is to recognize the three types of resources involved in collaboration: knowledge (skills and information), social (status), and personal (time and energy). Collaboration that involves time and energy is the most draining and needs the most attention for reform. Again, you may have a sense of who’s getting the bulk of personal resource-related requests at your organization.

3. Focus on Behaviors

Now that you have an idea of who’s at risk for collaboration overload and what’s asked of them, you can start to reform teamwork. A good start is to teach your top helpers to say “no.” Setting boundaries is a skill that needs cultivation. Have a conversation with employees about how to prioritize, filter, and redirect requests when necessary. Also, encourage help-seekers to change their behavior. Model organizational norms that show discretion about email communication and calendar invites. You may also want to cancel longstanding meetings that no longer add value. In other words, demonstrate through conversations and action to your employees that their time and energy are worth protecting.

Many helpers underperform on their personal activities because they’re worn out from helping. On the other hand, some achievers do well personally because they don’t spend time or energy helping their colleagues. The goal is employees who are both collaborative and personally productive. When you recognize that mix, give that employee a shout out. Show your nonprofit team what they’re aspiring to and watch the culture around teamwork start to shift. 

Article Referenced:

Cross, R., Rebele, R., & Grant, A. (2016). Collaborative Overload. Harvard Business Review.

Nonprofit Sustainability

Sheena Sullivan
Sheena Sullivan is an executive director and organizational development consultant. She has a master’s degree in social work with an emphasis on leadership and development from Loyola University Chicago and is a candidate for a Ph.D. in organizational development and leadership from Ashford University. You can connect with Sheena on LinkedIn.