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You Could Be Too Much of a Team Player

This is an article from the Wall Street Journal that poses an interesting question:


By Sue Shellenbarger July 23, 2018 9:27 a.m.

Amid a sweeping workplace trend pushing collaboration, some people are finding they play a little too well with others, causing stress and overwork.

When you hear the phrase “bad team player,” you might think of someone who refuses to collaborate. But you can also hurt your organization if you burn out trying to accommodate every co-worker’s request or attending more meetings than you can keep up with. This can stem from a basic inability to draw boundaries or an ego-driven desire to look like an office MVP.

Many white-collar employees who in the past would have worked side-by-side with a few colleagues now spend 85% of their time collaborating with multiple teams of co-workers via meetings, email, conference calls or instant messaging, often across several time zones, research shows.

The volume and diversity of collaborative demands on employees have risen 50% in the past decade, says Robert Cross, lead author of an eight-year, 28-employer study on the topic. Researchers used surveys, email analysis and interviews to identify the most efficient collaborators, or high performers who wasted the least time—their own or others’.

Robert Cross is a professor of global leadership at Babson College in Massachusetts. He's the lead researcher on a 28-employer study of how people waste time when working in collaborative environments. PHOTO: THE CONNECTED COMMONS

“It shocked me to see how overwhelmed people are today,” says Dr. Cross, who has been doing workplace research for 20 years, formerly at the University of Virginia and now at Babson College in Babson Park, Mass., where he is a professor of global leadership.

The research shows that the trend toward collaboration has turned some personal qualities that might be strengths in other settings into weaknesses at work. A desire to help others, a need to feel in control on the job or even a wish to be seen by colleagues as an expert on a particular topic can cause people to say yes to nonessential work, says Dr. Cross, whose research has been used in training programs at Ford Motor Co. , Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp. , General Electric Co.and other employers.


He calls these habitual responses “identity drivers,” because they often strengthen one’s self-regard or status among co-workers. They also prevent employees from putting on the brakes when their workloads mount.

Employees can learn to notice situations that trigger a knee-jerk response, such as a request for help from a colleague. It’s fine to help co-workers with important problems when you know you’re the best person to do so. But if you never say no, Dr. Cross says, “you become the path of least resistance for anybody who needs help.”

One of the 200 employees interviewed for the study was a hard-charging manager for a tech company. Her Achilles’ heel was the good feeling she got from helping colleagues, making her the go-to person for anyone struggling to solve a problem. That left her so exhausted that her health suffered and she eventually resigned. After learning to set boundaries on her next job and refuse tasks that would extend her workday into evenings or weekends, she began to thrive again.

Juggling competing priorities can frustrate employees who need to feel in control of their work. Some respond by doubling down and trying even harder to manage all the details, thinking, “I’m the only one who can do it right,” Dr. Cross says.

Kieran Tie of Denver likes feeling in control of his work. On a former job, he enjoyed creating software and seeing how it helped customers. But when he moved on to a new job as a product manager overseeing several engineering teams, he felt overwhelmed.

Kieran Tie of Denver, a former software engineer, burned out on a previous job trying to collaborate with too many colleagues on too many projects. He's a self-employed content-marketing consultant now.

“I was pulled in many different directions,” Mr. Tie says. He felt he should be able to keep all his projects on-time and under-budget, and blamed himself when he couldn’t. And when he applied the only solution he knew—working harder—he became so exhausted that he had to quit. He’s now self-employed as a content-marketing consultant and is writing a book about his experience with burnout.

Employees need to be wary of indulging FOMO, or the fear of missing out on something interesting that might be happening elsewhere. FOMO motivates people to say yes to attending meetings they could easily skip.

Others say yes to tasks that enable them to showcase their expertise, thinking, “I want to be seen as the go-to person, the expert,” says David Sylvester, director of global learning and development at Booz Allen and a longtime participant in Dr. Cross’s research. As that reputation spreads, the time demands can become overwhelming.

Overload is also caused by employers who pile on too much work, of course. But the splintering of demands that marks a collaborative workplace also requires employees to develop some nuanced skills—such as the ability to set aside important tasks for more important ones.

Even a desire for closure, which can be an asset when it drives you toward worthwhile goals, can be a drawback. Complex collaborative projects often require employees to tolerate ambiguity as they creep through stage after stage of development. “You can’t be too worried about getting the right decision, as there are always big unknowns,” one executive told researchers. “The key is to make a roughly right decision, move ahead” and adapt as more information becomes available.

The good news: Changing just a few behaviors can regain 18% to 24% of the time you spend collaborating, Dr. Cross says.

That requires staying focused on your most pressing job goals. At Ford, one executive has started blocking out a few minutes each morning for mindfulness meditation, to help him focus on his intended priorities that day, says Julie Lodge-Jarrett, Ford’s chief talent officer.

Give yourself permission not to answer every email. Set up planning tools that help you ward off nonessential demands.

Drawing on Dr. Cross’s research, Microsoft recently added features to its Outlook email that nudge users whose calendars are filling up with meetings to block out time for focused work. To figure out which meetings to skip, Dr. Cross says, look back four months on your calendar to see which of the meetings you attended were actually essential.

Write to Sue Shellenbarger at

Appeared in the July 24, 2018, print edition.

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