We live in a time when the notion of being part of "a team" seems critical to a functional and successful workplace. And an unwillingness to seek out and volunteer for any and all team-like opportunities can often be perceived as being "not a team player."
When you hear the words "bad team player," you might think of someone who refuses to collaborate. But you can hurt your organization if you burn out trying to accommodate every request or attend more meetings than you can keep up with.
"This can stem from a basic inability to draw boundaries or an ego-driven desire to look like an office MVP," says Wall Street Journalreporter Sue Shellenbarger. She's done some research on team players and provides some observations in a recent article.
According to research, many workers who used to spend time working side by side with a few colleagues now spend as much as 85% of their time collaborating with multiple teams of co-workers by means of email, conference calls, instant messaging, and even across several time zones.
Researcher Robert Cross is the lead author of an 8-year, 28 employer study on the topic. Researchers used surveys, email analysis and interviews to identify the most efficient collaborators, or high performers who wasted the least amount of time their own and that of others. He says, "The volume and diversity of collaborative demands on employees have risen 50% in the past decade."
"It shocked me to see how overwhelmed people are today," Dr. Cross says. He's been doing workplace research for 20 years, first at the University of Virginia and now at Babson College in Massachusetts, where he is a professor of global leadership.
The research reveals that the trend toward collaboration has turned some personal qualities that might be strengths in other places into weaknesses at work.
Dr. Cross says that a desire to help others, a need to feel in control on the job or even a wish to be seen by colleagues as "an expert" on a particular topic can cause people to say yes to nonessential work. He calls these habitual responses "identity drivers," because they often strengthen one's self-regard or status among co-workers. This also keep employees from putting on the breaks when workloads become overwhelming.
He says it's fine to help co-workers with important problems when you are the most qualified and best person to do so, but if you never say no, "you become the path of least resistance for anybody who needs help."
According to Dr. Cross, juggling competing priorities can frustrate employees who need to feel in control. Some respond by doubling down and trying even harder to manage all the details, even though they cannot, because they feel, "I'm the only one who can do it right."
He further advises that employees need to be wary of indulging the "Fear Of Missing Out" on something interesting that is happening elsewhere. FOMO makes people want to attend or be part of things they shouldn't be.
David Sylvester is director of global learning and development at Booz Allen and has been a long time participant in Dr. Cross's research. He says that others say yes to tasks that enable them to showcase their expertise thinking, "I want to be seen as the go-to person, the expert."
Overload is also caused by employers who expect too much work. But the very qualities that mark a collaborative workplace also requires employees to develop nuanced skills, like the ability to set aside important tasks for more important ones, and to speak up when they already have too much work to handle effectively.
But there is some good news, says Dr. Cross. Changing just a few behaviors can regain 18% to 24% of the time you spend collaborating.
That requires staying focused on your most pressing job goals. Give yourself permission to not answer every email. Set up planning tools that help ward off nonessential demands.
Based on Dr. Cross's research, Microsoft recently added features to its Outlook email that remind users whose calendars are filling up with meetings to block out time for focused work. To decide which meetings to skip, Dr. Cross suggests, "Look back four months on your calendar to see which of the meetings you attended were actually essential."
Better yet, can you remember any of them?