In any organization, people apply unspoken rules and understood norms to get collective work done — in other words, they collaborate. Over the past 15 years, my team and I have observed and facilitated thousands of meetings and helped hundreds of teams come together to do work, and we have found that collaboration looks different depending on a variety of factors.
The value people place on relationships is a strong influencing factor on whether and how they collaborate. Relationship-heavy cultures are marked by inclusion, personal connection, and relationship-based decision making. They tend to be friendly, warm places to work. Another factor is how strongly the people in an organization value rapid progress. People in organizations with an execution orientation thrive on urgency and take quick steps toward an end goal, rarely missing a deadline.
In our experience, organizations that have a relationship bias combined with an execution orientation have a tendency to involve lots of people in any given effort, operate with tight timeframes, and usually have multiple projects going at once, pulling people in different directions. While these are often productive, energizing places to work, there are downsides. In an effort to make sure people feel connected, incorporate all perspectives, and thoughtfully socialize decisions, these organizations tend to have larger meetings, bigger email distribution threads, and more people involved in any given process. This creates the conditions for collaboration overload.
Women Disproportionately Carry the Burden of Collaboration
We recently studied three such organizations in-depth using a combination of surveys, interviews, and direct observation, and we noted a consistent theme: While everyone in the organization experienced collaboration overload, women felt the burden disproportionately.
Our research suggests several reasons why this might be.
First, studies have shown that women are more likely to care for the collective, which means they are more likely to step in when they see a gap or ambiguity. Researcher, consultant, and author Pam Heim has studied gender differences and has published her findings in several books. Her research uncovers an important difference in the way men and women view collaboration. She found that women are more likely to agree with the statement “Being a good team player means helping all of my colleagues with what they need to get done.” In contrast, men are more likely to agree with the statement “Being a good team player is knowing your position and playing it well.” In organizations that get work done through informal project teams or that have overlapping accountabilities, this difference in perspective has implications for the way the men and women engage in collaboration.
Second, women are less likely to carve out time during the workday to focus on their top priorities, because they feel guilty or selfish for doing so. (Research that indicates guilt is typically a female trait supports this finding.) If women do carve out time, they tend to give it away if someone needs them. In the organizations we studied, the consequence is that women often end up overscheduled, rushing from meeting to meeting. This can have negative consequences on their careers because they risk appearing scattered, late, and unprepared. Their contributions might go unnoticed if their efforts are fragmented across multiple efforts. They won’t have time for focused work.
Cal Newport argues in his book Deep Work that scheduling blocks of time for distraction-free work increases the ability to assimilate complicated information, produce better results more quickly, and feel more fulfilled. In one organization we studied, we asked people to experiment with blocking 90 minutes per week for focused work. The people who successfully did it reported a significant jump in productivity and fulfillment. However, men were more likely than women to continue with the practice.
We also found that women at the management level were experiencing far greater burnout and frustration than men were, yet they were also more likely to invest their time to establish work practices that would benefit others. In one case, we convened a meeting to come up with new rituals for respecting one another’s time and energy. Of the six leaders on that team, the four women attended and the two men did not, citing other priorities. In another case, an eight-person leadership team scheduled a session to establish email and meeting norms that would reduce the collaborative burden for the whole department. All the women attended, but the three men no-showed. These anecdotal incidents are illustrative of a broader pattern we observed: Women will not only take on more than their share of the collaborative load, but also will be more likely to take action to reduce the overall workload in their team or department.
What’s Happening in Your Organization?
If you’re concerned that similar dynamics are happening in your organization, do some research. Talk with the people on your team in one-on-one conversations, especially the women, and ask for their view of how much of the collaboration burden each person is carrying. You can use the chart below, which is from the 2016 HBR article “Collaborative Overload,” and ask each employee where they would place themselves.
If you find that the women in your organization are carrying a disproportionate share of the collaborative work, you can take steps to neutralize the imbalance by building a culture of mutual accountability.
Mutuality (the sense that we’re in this together) combined with clear contracting (our commitments are precise and we expect each other to follow through) and transparency (our contributions are visible to others) can go a long way toward mitigating the risk of gender-imbalanced collaboration.
This can be challenging in organizations that value relationships and may be conflict avoidant. We’ve witnessed many teams that are reticent to hold one another to their commitments and would rather let it go than have a difficult conversation.
Here are some steps you can take to build that culture:
Establish a discipline of clear contracting. There are two ways you can make sure people are clear in how they make and ask for commitments. By eliminating ambiguity, you eliminate the need for people (namely women) to take on more than their share.
- Make precise requests. Consider the differences between these statements: “Sam, it would be great to get us going on the customer roundtable next month” and “Sam, can you develop the agenda for the March 19 customer roundtable by next Friday?” The first version leaves the ask open to interpretation; the second does not.
- Seek committed responses. In response to a clear request, many people will say “Sounds good” or “I agree.” These might sound like confirmation that the person will do what you’ve asked, but they aren’t necessarily. Encourage people to reply with a clear yes, a definitive no, or a counterproposal.
Build in transparency. If everyone knows who’s doing what, it’s easier for people to hold one another accountable.
- Document agreements. This might be in email or a shared collaborative space. With everyone in agreement on what’s to be done and who’s going to do it, you have a foundation on which team members can hold one another accountable.
- Follow through. Integrate mechanisms to track contribution against commitment and have the conversation when there’s a breakdown. It could be as simple as: “Sam, I thought you were going to develop a customer roundtable agenda, but this is a bullet list of ideas. Where did we miss each other? What can we do differently next time?”
Create a healthy feedback culture. Ways to do it in your company include:
- Establish shared language. Introduce a framework for giving feedback, such as the situation-behavior-impact model, and encourage your team to use it with each other regularly.
- Set an example. Foster the culture of mutuality by being vulnerable when sharing the “impact” part of the feedback. Think of the power of a simple statement such as, “Sam, because your deliverable wasn’t done and you were out of the office, I had to stay late to finish it, which caused me to miss dinner at home.” By not letting team members off the hook and letting them know about the impact, they are far more likely to come through the next time.
Insisting on explicit agreements and feedback may feel uncomfortable or oddly formal at first, especially in a warm culture. However, done well and consistently, it introduces a common set of shared expectations, removing the opportunity for default behaviors based on gender norms to take hold.
It’s positive to have a culture that values collaboration. But you don’t want particular employees to unfairly carry the weight. By taking these steps to disrupt the gender imbalance around collaboration, you can level the playing field and bring out the best in everyone.