I was interviewed last month for a Harvard Business Review podcast (HBR IdeaCast) on the topic of “Managing Someone Who’s Too Collaborative.” During this discussion with HBR’s Sarah Green Carmichael, I shared coaching insights on this tricky subject, which is important to understand not just when you’re managing an employee who fits this description, but when you are too collaborative yourself.
I’ll admit that I used to be a classic over-collaborator, and this showed up as perfectionism. I would spend too much time double-checking and redoing work to try to make everything error-free due to lack of self-confidence in what I thought. When you don’t believe in yourself or trust your own worth and knowledge, you end up needing validation from others. So you may reach out more than necessary to confirm your ideas and gauge what people think about what you’re doing.
What’s wrong with this approach? Isn’t it a good thing to seek input and affirmation to gain support from your colleagues? A major point that I shared on the podcast is that while collaboration is certainly an important professional skill to have in your toolbox, being overly consensus-driven can end up holding you back in your career. You may focus on this area with the intention of looking like a team player. But if you spend too much time in this quadrant rather than taking action based on your own initiative, your boss may interpret striving for group buy-in as poor decision-making and prioritization skills.
This tendency is by no means gender-specific, and men as well as women can certainly be over-collaborative. But I discovered through research on my first book, It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky Floor, that many women have a tendency to be self-critical. If women over-focus on people-pleasing behaviors and get into the habit of over-collaboration, they can inadvertently hold themselves back from being seen as being strategic and having leadership potential.
If you recognize yourself in this description, here’s what to do:
- Shift your internal narrative. The number-one change you can make to avoid relying more on gathering opinions than on making your own decisions is to become aware of your mental narrative about yourself, and shift it when needed. Your goal is to start believing in yourself. Give yourself permission to speak up or make an ask based on your own opinions and views, without needing to poll everyone in the place before moving forward.
- Put “being liked” in perspective. It’s nice to be liked by people you work with, and being collaborative is one way to try to be likeable. But if you’re reaching out constantly to get others’ inputs in a bid to be approved of by everyone in the office, consider how this choice may be holding you back from advancement. Are you avoiding making a decision or taking a stand on something important at work because you’re afraid it won’t be popular? It’s impossible to please everyone, and effective leaders know this.
- Identify areas where you can make decisions. If you’re feeling frustrated as you read this because there are key areas where you know you need to collaborate and get key influencers’ perspective, don’t despair. My point isn’t that you should shun collaboration, but that you should be intentional about when to use it. Yes, you’ll need to ask your boss for input in certain areas, but there are no doubt other arenas where your job is to make that decision with confidence. Review your list of goals and projects, and filter it by which ones you might collaborate on and which require decisiveness.
- Be inclusive when you’re decisive. Emotional and social intelligence play an important role in making the shift from over-collaboration to strategic decision-making. Empathy and understanding are still critical and are core components of inclusive leadership. As you become more comfortable with trusting your own intuition and rely less on polling the whole group for support, be sure to keep the needs of others top of mind. By continuing to take your colleagues’ concerns into consideration and avoid purely self-serving outcomes, you’ll gain better alignment for your goals even when there isn’t consensus about your decisions.
It takes time to find the “sweet spot” between being inclusive and collaborative enough, versus erring on the side of over-asking to gain consensus on every initiative. Follow the steps above, and you’ll find the right balance.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences regarding this topic, whether you’re someone who’s over-collaborative or you manage someone who is. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rebecca Shambaugh is a leadership expert on building inclusive and high performance cultures. She speaks at major conferences and to executives on how to disrupt traditional mindsets and create an inspiring vision and roadmap for driving greater levels of innovation and performance through a unified voice for leadership. Rebeccais the Founder of Women in Leadership and Learning, a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review, and blogger for the Huffington Post. She is author of the best-selling books It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky Floor and Make Room for Her: Why Companies Need an Integrated Leadership Model to Achieve Extraordinary Results.
At SHAMBAUGH we’re on mission to develop high-performing and inclusive leaders who transform workplace cultures so everyone can thrive. Find out more about us at: www.shambaughleadership.com