Boyden Executive Search

To collaborate is a virtue, but it is not always the best approach to problem-solving or leadership.

Managers often, almost reflexively, place an emphasis on collaboration in groups. The assumption that a collaborative approach will lead to a better solution is rarely questioned. A recent survey by the Financial Times illustrates this propensity: Asked what they want most from MBA graduates, employers placed collaborative skills in the top five – namely, ability to work in a team, work with a wide variety of people, and build, sustain and expand a network of people. Collaboration has a good track record. But there are exceptions, and different situations may call for different approaches.

One obvious drawback is groupthink. Team members with the most assertive personalities or loudest voices can dominate the conversation, while other would-be contributors fall in line rather than stand out. Or, a lone dissenter who sees a fatal flaw in an otherwise unanimous decision may be loath to go against the group. This hazard is well-known to managers, who must find a balance between teamwork and individuality.

Technology has made collaboration much easier, further solidifying its status as a default modus operandi. But is it necessarily optimal? A study from America’s National Academy of Sciences examined the question of whether near-constant interaction via email, text, etc. helps or harms performance. Three groups had to solve a logical problem, each using a different approach. In one group, subjects acted independently; in another, they saw solutions posted by others at every stage; and in the third, subjects were only intermittently informed of one another’s ideas.

The results call the problem-solving magic of collaboration into question, and the answer is more nuanced. As The Economist explains, “members of the individualist group reached the optimal solution more often than the constant collaborators, but had a poorer average result. The intermittent collaborators found the right result as often as the individualists, and got a better average solution.” People benefit from being given some space for generating ideas, but occasional collaboration is also beneficial, as it allows them to get a colleague’s perspective.

In the book Friend & Foe, Adam Galinsky of Columbia Business School and Maurice Schweitzer of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania cite multiple cases demonstrating that collaboration is important in the lower levels of an organisation, but at the top, it can impede decision-making. The authors note that co-leadership “creates uncertainty over who is really in charge.”

Many companies set up co-leaderships, generally comprised of senior managers from the existing bench, for the purpose of interim management during an executive transition. This is not advised for the long term. Less than 5% of companies in the Fortune 500 have used a co-CEO structure since 1989. The co-leadership of Sandy Weill and John Reed, co-chief executives at Citigroup in the late 1990s, is a cautionary tale. It was infamously embattled, and held up for only two years.

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