What is Collaborative Overload?

Research suggests that most managers now spend 85% or more of their work time on e-mail, in meetings, and on the phone, and the demand for such activities has jumped by 50% over the past decade.

Companies benefit from greater collaboration through, for example, faster innovation and more-seamless client service.

However, along with all this comes significantly less time for focused individual work, careful reflection, and sound decision making.

A 2016 Harvard Business Review article dubbed this collaborative overload (Cross et al., 2018).

Two Types of Overload

  1. A surge can result from a promotion, a request from a boss or a colleague to take on or help out with a project, or the desire to jump into an “extracurricular” work activity because you feel obligated or don’t want to miss out.
  2. A slow burn is more insidious and occurs through incremental increases in the volume, diversity, and pace of collaborative demands over time, as personal effectiveness leads to larger networks and greater scope of responsibilities.
    • Go-to people in organisations suffer from this type of overload.
    • As we gain experience, we often tend to take on more work, and our identities start to become intertwined with accomplishment, helping, or being in the know.
    • We tend not to question what we are doing as we add tasks or work late into the night on e-mail.
    • And, of course, our colleagues welcome these tendencies; as we gain reputations for competence and responsiveness, people in our networks bring us more work and requests.

In combating collaborative overload, people need to be able to recognise:

  • How much is driven by their own desire to be useful, such as staying with a project after their expertise is no longer required;
  • How much is anxiety at ceding control;
  • When to decline to participate in group work;
  • Where their expertise will add value to a project or where they can be productive.

Efficient collaborators need to know when to say yes and, perhaps more importantly, when to say no.


Cross, R., Taylor, S. & Zehner, D. (2018) Collaboration Without Burnout. Harvard Business Review. July-August 2018, pp.134-137.


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