When your boss doesn’t want you to collaborate?

Earlier this year researchers at Berkley published a paper titled “Failure at the Top: How Power Undermines Collaborative Performance” which concluded that when asked to collaborate “groups of high power individuals performed worse because they fought over their relative status in the group, were less focused on the task, and shared information with each other less effectively”. This is not an indictment on powerful business leaders as a whole, as their other qualities can and often offset a lack of collaborative skills. The angle that interests me is the impact such limited use of collaborative skills has on the whole organisation. If your boss does not appreciate collaboration, how likely is she/he to invest in collaboration as a strategy and, more worryingly, how much will those who collaborate be recognised and rewarded?

Henry fordThe researchers dug deep into the relations between the power that individuals are assigned and their capacity to collaborate effectively with other powerful individuals. The paper makes it clear that there is prior research in the field which has found that high power individuals may feel overconfident in their own ideas, devalue the performance of others and take credit for others’ contribution/s. Those factors become a barrier to collaboration.

The impact of such a scenario should not be ignored in any business willing to consider its competitive strategy. Collaboration is increasingly a skill that the best performing businesses take seriously. What is not entirely clear is the extent to which reluctant collaborators in powerful positions may have a biased view of collaboration (based on their personal experiences) at the expense of the strategy as a whole. A powerful individual not willing to collaborate with another powerful individual, say two executives in the same business, may lead to a trickle-down effect onto middle management and general staff. If collaboration produces tension and does not lead to better outcomes for a business, purely as the result of two powerful individuals’ lack of trust and downright refusal to do their best, then the collaborative effort of their general staff may likewise be a waste of time and money: an unacceptable scenario for business. So, can business remedy such a situation? The answer is ‘Yes’ – and it would be foolish not to do so.