Alter Behaviors to Streamline Collaboration Practices

Reina woke up feeling energized about her day. She was an account manager at a pharmaceutical marketing firm, and her newest account was about to introduce a medication for depression. She had already received a text from the drug company’s marketing chief with ideas for the 9 a.m. kickoff meeting. She scrolled down; it was a long text, too long for her to absorb right now as she was getting out of bed, but she understood and shared his excitement. The drug had been in the pipeline for years, and everyone was thrilled that it was finally hitting the market.

There was the usual chaos at breakfast, but her husband volunteered to braid the girls’ hair, so Reina was able to get out of the house on time, for once. During her commute, she took a call about coverage for two upcoming maternity leaves in her creative department. A successful resolution to that issue left her feeling she had accomplished something before she even got to the office—a great start to the day.

Her assistant was already in and hard at work, making sure that everyone who had been invited to the kickoff planned to attend. Arriving at her desk, Reina glanced at the boldface subject lines that filled her inbox. There were a lot of messages, but they could wait. She spent the hour she had before the kickoff getting ready for it. When she walked into the meeting at 9 a.m., it was exactly as she had envisioned: everyone was there in the big conference room.

The chairs around the oval table were filling up, so it was good that her assistant had put extra rows along the windows and walls. Reina overheard someone asking someone else what the meeting was about: “Why are we here?”

She ignored that and positioned herself near the screen at the head, making sure the tech person had set up all the AV connections. Platters of pastries and fruit had been set out, and people were helping themselves.

“Is there an agenda?” someone asked her.

“Not necessary,” she replied. “We’re just going to talk about the launch and hear from a few people. We’ll let it happen organically.”

She waited for things to quiet down; by then, it was an overflow crowd, with people standing in the doorways. Reina started, “This is a big day for all of us.” She talked a bit about the new drug and said they’d be hearing from leaders of the pharma company via video link.

A few hands went up. Could she recap what the drug does and how it’s different? Could she summarize the marketing plan? She promised that the questions would be answered as the meeting unfolded. She introduced the drug company CEO, who talked about his hopes for the new product. He introduced his marketing VP, who discussed the marketing plan. (Reina realized that she had never found time to read the lengthy email that the VP had sent her early that morning, but no matter.) The chief medical officer talked about the drug’s mechanism, and there was a promotional video.

Time passed. The meeting started to drag. A few people drifted out. At the top of the hour, there was a sudden collective movement for the door, like at the end of a high school class. People were eager to go. The video link was shut down, and people grabbed the last pastries.

“You’ve got another meeting downstairs,” Reina’s assistant said. “Right now.” So, it was off to the next one, where Reina sat to the side and started to look at her emails. She paid no attention to what was going on in the meeting, but that was no loss, because she didn’t really have to be there anyway. She was just there to “show the marketing flag,” as she often said.

She counted thirty-three unread messages in her inbox. She also saw five texts that she had to deal with. She knew it would go on like that all day. The energy she had felt during her commute was quickly slipping away. This was a familiar sensation—by midmorning, she often felt she had lost control of her day. She knew she would never catch up before going home. And then there would be requests from her husband, calls from her mother about her bad back, and calls from her sister asking for help with something or other. She would inevitably be up half the night dealing with work stuff. How did this happen?

The Root Problem

Reina’s situation probably feels familiar to you. More often than is healthy, we all live this way, dealing with a huge volume and vast diversity of demands that come to us via professional and personal relationships.

It’s tempting to look for easy answers to overload by obsessing over big inefficiencies that are out of our control, such as demands from unpredictable bosses. But usually the way out is by focusing instead on the small items we can influence and not allowing them to creep around us too much. It’s about avoiding the death of a thousand cuts. Figure out what you have control over, what you can influence. Then play offense on these items.

Huge efficiencies are found by implementing better norms of practice around how we use the range of collaborative tools at our disposal. Let’s say that Reina employed a best practice of scheduling her meetings for forty-five minutes each instead of an hour. Let’s say she imposed more order through agendas and had someone capture and post meeting notes, eliminating maybe twenty texts throughout the day from people looking for clarity. And let’s say she agreed with her team on a few simple norms on email length and use that had the effect of removing twenty emails and making another sixty of them more efficient to read and respond to.

All small stuff, right? And—as the cynical will note—this is not solving meetings or email in the aggregate. You may be saying, “I want a solution for the whole problem!”

All too often, in pursuit of a neat, elegant solution for the whole problem, people give up trying to make things marginally better. They won’t take steps to streamline 60 emails with direct reports because that solution wouldn’t work for the other 120 emails coming from bosses, clients, and stakeholders. But usually there is no elegant solution to the whole problem. Playing offense against overload is more like a brawl than a ballet. The winners are the ones who relentlessly claw time back through many small actions.

If Reina shortened those five meetings by a quarter-hour each, she’d get back seventy-five minutes in that one day. By eliminating the twenty texts, she’d get back maybe twenty minutes, figuring a minute each (and that doesn’t include the time it takes to get back on task, which I will come to in a moment). Removing twenty emails would give her another twenty minutes, and streamlining sixty emails would give her maybe thirty additional minutes. Overall, she could claw back 145 minutes in one day alone.

But let’s go deeper. Channel inefficiency—misuse of meetings, email, text, phone calls, and the like—is really a surface issue. Yes, it’s real and it hurts us every day. But what’s going on underneath is the more pressing problem: we’re failing to create efficient interaction norms. We’re not enabling cultures of efficient collaboration in our organizations.

And this is, at root, a behavior problem. Our own behavior creates unhealthy norms around the way we interact and generates the conditions for overload. Because it’s a behavior problem, we can change it, but we have to be proactive and engage others.

Most time-management books treat each of us in isolation and tell us how to get faster and more organized. But getting faster and more efficient often means that demands will come back to us faster. Email begets email. Being super organized and execution oriented can create overreliance on us as teams push us into the hero role.

Preventing overload through death by a thousand cuts is a two-step process. First, you create channel efficiency, but then, crucially, you attack the underlying norms that create inefficient communication.

I will discuss best practices for each step. Some of those will be called out in detail in the “Coaching Break” sidebars.

The Meetings Channel

Most managers’ calendars are like Reina’s, filled with meetings from the beginning to the end of each day. But it’s not just the number of meetings that bogs people down. It’s the way the meetings are initiated, organized, and conducted.

Focus on desired outcomes, include only those necessary, and ensure meetings are efficient

Reina provides good examples of what not to do. It’s a red flag if attendees ask questions like “What is this meeting about?” or “Why are we here?” or “Is there an agenda?” Reina never stated the meeting’s purpose, nor did she send out preliminary information to help attendees get up to speed on the new drug.

Reina’s comment that the meeting would unfold “organically” is another red flag. There can be times, such as early in projects, when this approach works. But unstructured meetings happen too often and, because they don’t have an explicit purpose or clear agenda, attendees quickly become disengaged. This is a classic misuse of collaborative time. Then Reina allowed her own time to be misused by participating in a meeting that she had no real need to attend, and she misused that meeting by sitting there tending to her email.

See the Coaching Break, “Efficient Meetings” for strategies that the most-efficient collaborators described as a series of healthy norms that help them realize efficiencies before a meeting, during a meeting, and after a meeting. Before a meeting, they ask themselves, What do I need, and why? Am I clear on what I want to accomplish in this meeting? Then they state the meeting’s purpose, posting the agenda, establishing expectations for how and when people will contribute, and sending out preliminary material. During the meeting, they follow the agenda and require people to contribute appropriately, given the objectives. Afterward, they send follow-up emails on next steps.


Efficient Meetings

Meetings are the channel of choice for an array of collaborative decision-making, problem-solving, and innovation activities. Research shows that when meetings follow an appropriate degree of organization and process for the task at hand, work output and efficiency greatly improve. There are numerous ways to provide such organization. They can be broken down into pre-meeting, meeting, and post-meeting strategies.


  • Stay focused by asking yourself: What do I need, and why? Am I clear on what I want to accomplish in this meeting?
  • State the meeting’s purpose and spell out objectives or expectations for outcomes.
  • Publish the agenda, the timeline, the attendee list, and expectations for how and when people will contribute, and for how long. This includes specifying facilitative roles: Who will make presentations? Who will manage discussions of subtopics? Place these and any other informational materials into an online team space.
  • Keep meetings as small as possible (when the number of participants grows beyond a manageable size, assign team leads or liaisons to smaller groups, using shared team spaces to exchange information whenever possible).
  • Touch base with people who are tangentially involved but don’t actually need to be there and reassure them that it’s OK if they don’t show up.
  • Send out preliminary information so that meeting time is spent on the best use of attendees’ expertise and expect attendees to actually read this preparatory material.


  • If you are using videoconferencing, encourage people to show up early while previous videoconferences are ending, so that there is overlap and people can bump into one another, just as they might in the hallway in person or if they poked their heads into others’ cubes (this facilitates informal interactions that make remote workers feel more integrated into day-to-day interactions).
  • Follow the agenda and objectives.
  • Don’t waste time at the beginning of the meeting to catch up those who missed the last one.
  • Require people to be fully present (not answering emails or texts) and contributing concisely or, if they agree with what has been said, not contributing at all (rather than contributing purely for status or visibility).
  • If it’s a videoconference, require people to keep their cameras on at all times, even when screen sharing (the ability to see body language and gestures strengthens the interactions and fosters relationship building).
  • Adhere to process guidelines to stay on task within rough timelines; yet, at the same time, keep enough slack in the agenda to allow for informal interactions (this enriches relationships, as people find points of communality).
  • Establish norms of how and when to disagree; these norms should include no sidebar disagreements during the meeting.
  • Keep meetings brief, and don’t slavishly adhere to the allotted time; don’t let a meeting expand to fill the prescribed slot.
  • End five minutes early, don’t run late, and don’t convey important information as people are leaving. Many organizations use agile methods such as holding meetings in stairways or other common spaces, limiting meetings to twenty minutes, banning food, and asking people to stand up (if able) for the duration.


  • Send follow-up emails on agreements, commitments, and next steps.
  • Reinforce a norm that people who miss the meeting own catching up and coming to the next one informed about what they missed.

Although Reina saw her kickoff meeting as a big success, her poor process ended up wasting people’s time and deprived the core team of a chance to discuss substantive issues and challenges that lay ahead.

The Email Channel

While Reina was catching up on emails in her 10 a.m. meeting, she clicked a message with the subject line “A few things to go over … Please read!!!” It was from a person working on one of the firm’s oldest accounts, a pharma company struggling to revitalize its image. It began with “I know you’re busy, but you asked me to spell out the issues with this client in an email, so here it is—PLEASE RESPOND ASAP, as I have to get back to them!!!”

This particular individual was always taking this kind of tone with her. Reina briefly wondered why she tolerated it, but she put that thought aside and dug in, trying to get through the email quickly. She knew that if she didn’t deal with this, the sender would be on her back all day, calling her and sending follow-up emails.

There was a long analysis of the current issues. Reina was making progress in understanding the problem when she got a text on her phone from another person asking if she had looked at his email about a plan for a different client’s campaign. It was very urgent, he said.

Reina had to switch gears to think about this. A new campaign … Ah, yes, she knew what it was about: the new campaign was targeted to physicians, and in fact it had been Reina’s idea, something she was really excited about. But why was it “very urgent”? The text didn’t say, so she went back to her inbox and looked for an email from that person. She found it, opened it, scanned it, and closed it. The matter wasn’t that urgent after all.

She put it aside, but then for a moment she couldn’t remember what she had been thinking about before. Her brain felt addled. She would often start on a task, then get interrupted by something and have trouble resuming it. In darker moments, she worried about this and wondered if the stress was getting to her, if she was getting old, or if there was something wrong with her brain.

A Brief Interruption … about Interruptions

Researchers who study thinking would say there’s nothing wrong with Reina’s brain. What happens to her happens to everyone. When you’re working on a complex task, you create mental structures such as images and categories to help you understand the problem. These “schemas” are fleeting, as though written in smoke. If you’re interrupted, they hang in the air of your mind for a while, but not for long. If the interruption is too protracted, when you go back to them, they’ve drifted away.

The schemas that Reina had begun creating as she tried to solve the problem-client issue had dissolved during the interruption. Afterward, it was a struggle to recreate them and resume where she had left off.

Email is a particularly insidious platform for interruption, because of its omnipresence. The potential for disruption never goes away. But there are many additional channels of interruption: phone calls, texts, direct messages, pop-in requests, fire drills, news events, and so on. And the effect is the same—we get thrown off, and the switching costs mount up over the course of the day.

Interruption science has been going strong since it started in the 1800s in Europe with the beginnings of the study of cognition. Cognition researchers, unlike neuroscientists, don’t focus on the physical hardware of the brain. Instead, they look at the software—at how thoughts and memories course through the mind.

The field took a big step forward in the 1950s with the work of American memory researchers Lloyd and Peggy Peterson. The Petersons, who raised four children together while teaching at Indiana University, helped develop a procedure still used in clinical research: they asked people to remember strings of letters, then interrupted them with tasks such as counting backward by threes, and then asked how many of the letters they could still recall.1 The earlier memories got obliterated after as little as eighteen seconds of interruption.2

Research on interruptions has surged in the twenty-first century as a response to our always-on and always-interrupted digital culture. Within the past few years, two researchers in France analyzed the state of the art on the components of mental schemas, which they called “knowledge structures,” and looked at what happens to them during interruptions. They reported that the literature demonstrates that “an interruption longer than 30 seconds would completely extinguish the components related to the primary task. Once the interruption is over, [the components of these schemas] must be reactivated completely in order to resume that task.”3

And how long does it take, after an interruption, to get our bearings again and to piece together what we were working on before? Gloria Mark, a professor in informatics at UC Irvine, uses biosensors and ethnographic techniques to study the effects of disruption. She told one interviewer that after an interruption, “You have to completely shift your thinking … it takes an average of twenty-three minutes and fifteen seconds to get back to the task.”4 With practice, people do get better at adjusting to interruptions, but this adaptability comes at a cost, as she says in one of her research papers: people who were frequently interrupted “experienced a higher workload, more stress, higher frustration, more time pressure, and [greater] effort.” This greater stress has negative consequences for health and performance.5

Let’s say, conservatively, that of all the interruptions tormenting Reina during her day, three of them were avoidable. Let’s also say that she lost the average recovery time of twenty-three minutes and fifteen seconds on each of those avoidable interruptions. That comes to one hour, nine minutes, and forty-five seconds lost. Add that to the 145 minutes of easily salvageable time that she wasted on meetings and inefficient communications, and you get three hours, thirty-four minutes, and forty-five seconds. In one day.

That’s not real time, you might say. But isn’t it? The loss of all these hours is exactly why we are exhausted at the end of the day. It’s why we are doing email when we should be thinking strategically or spending time with family or friends. We all need to appreciate how truly damaging our constant disruptions, interruptions, and task switches can be over the long term so that we can begin to organize our behaviors in new ways.

Effective Use of Email

Email is in the top three presumed drivers of collaboration overload in every survey we have done. But the heart of the problem is not the technology itself but the culture of email use we all allow to persist. The magic of efficient collaborators is that they recognize this and shape the collaboration norms in groups they can influence.

Adopt efficient norms of email

The employee who wielded the exclamation points and all caps succinctly summed up Reina’s failure to establish efficient norms: “You asked me to spell out the issues with this client in an email.” Reina routinely and explicitly asked people to use email as a means for hashing out the details of work, rather than as a tool to confirm expectations or set up times for face-to-face discussions.

Email is potentially a great tool. You can use it to reach out across units, hierarchical levels, geographies, and even organizational lines. But because of this power, it can quickly become a significant source of collaboration overload, disengagement, and performance degradation. The volume and diversity of messages create an enormous burden—invisible to all but the recipient. And because of the permanence of these communications, they consume us more than meetings or conversations as we think about and respond to issues.

The lack of physical cues in emails, or the kinds of subtleties that are expressed by voice, often leads to faulty assumptions about emails’ tone, which can create additional work for everyone. The leanness becomes a particular problem if people try to use email to avoid in-person conflict; if there’s disagreement, it may feel more comfortable to send an email, when a phone call or face-to-face meeting would be a faster and better way to deal with the problem. Email also follows us everywhere on our mobile devices. That means we often find ourselves responding late at night, early in the morning, or while we’re on vacation.

The most-efficient collaborators were very clear about their behaviors around email. To reduce collaborative time, they establish guidelines for themselves and create healthy norms throughout their groups on how to use and deal with email. These guidelines fall into three categories—format and organization of emails, use of email, and limiting email-related disruptions. The guidelines include such best practices as establishing a maximum message length—the efficient collaborators don’t waste time perfecting lengthy messages that others are forced to respond to (or don’t read at all). Instead, they use outline structures with bullet points, create effective subject lines, and establish reasonable norms on response time. (See the Coaching Break, “Efficient Email.”)


Efficient Email

Email is the channel of choice for transactional exchanges such as distributing information or confirming agreements after a meeting. Healthy norms for email use fall into three categories—format and organization of emails, use of email, and limiting email-related disruptions.

Format and Organization

  • Establish a maximum length. If you find yourself exceeding it, you need to communicate the idea via phone call, face-to-face meeting, or a well-thought-out written statement that the recipient can absorb when convenient.
  • Move away from full-text paragraphs and instead use outline structures with bullet points.
  • Clarify the “ask”—the objective of the email—in the first three sen tences; one leader in a global company said, “Give me the punchline first.” If that isn’t possible, it’s time to move to a richer channel.
  • Use the subject line to convey the desired outcome—Is action required? Is it an FYI?—and the due date.


  • Explicitly limit the volume of email. If you don’t get alignment on a given topic after two emails, switch to a richer channel to help avoid churn and misunderstandings. Word your responses so as to discourage unnecessary follow-ups.
  • Halt unnecessary cc’ing and “Reply to all.” If you don’t know how someone will use the information, consider taking that person off the thread.
  • Use triage and filing practices such as color-coding cc or bcc emails so that you can review them appropriately; identify emails that require more than a minute’s response and put them into an action folder for review later; establish rules to forward emails from specific senders to relevant people on the team; and use “out of office” or “not available” automatic notices to buy time when you need it.
  • Celebrate email efficiency; call out channel uses that adhere to these norms.
  • Remember that when you fire off emails early in the morning, late at night, or on the weekends, you send an unhealthy message to your team. If you must write emails during off-hours, use the delay feature to send them at the beginning of reasonable work hours so you don’t create a stressful norm that everyone must be “always on.”
  • Create reasonable norms on response time. A cultural expectation that equates rapid response with working hard can send a group into a frenzy. Part of setting reasonable norms is establishing that in most circumstances, demanding that someone immediately read an email is an unacceptable imposition on their time.

Limiting Disruptions

  • Establish a norm of setting aside specific times, such as 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. daily or three times a day, to read emails; turn off notifications at other times.
  • Resist the temptation to constantly check for new email.
  • Resist the impulse to read every new message right away.
  • Establish norms around use of subject-line interrupters such as “Please read!!!” and “Urgent!!!”

Reina didn’t perceive the invisible and insidious effects of the unhealthy email norms she had tolerated and encouraged. She had gotten used to absorbing the inefficiencies and shrugging them off. She wasn’t aware that eliminating just twenty daily emails and streamlining sixty more could result in time savings of nearly an hour in her busy workday. She didn’t see that the behaviors that led to email inefficiencies were worth acting on—that she needed to learn how to change her behaviors so that she could minimize the inefficiencies.

You won’t be surprised to hear that Reina’s inefficient behaviors extended to her use of texting, instant messaging, and phone calls. In fact, she tended to blend channel inefficiencies together, as when she sat in meetings checking her phone for new emails and instant messages, and then reading and responding to them.

Direct Messaging and Rich Media

As with email, the norms that evolve around direct messaging and video have a big impact on the efficiency of our collaboration.

Use direct messaging to increase efficiency of established relationships

Once relationships are established, direct messaging and direct-message platforms such as Slack can be effective as means for efficiently getting information to and from others in short, transactional exchanges. DMs also work well in informal communication or as a first point of contact. For example, send a direct message to inquire about availability, rather than calling cold.

However, DMs can easily become sources of interruptions and chaos. Don’t start believing that you need to respond to all direct messages as rapidly as possible. Ignore them when you’re in meetings or conversations. And don’t let DM exchanges go on too long. If it takes longer than three or four texts, pick up the phone.

Support virtual collaborations with rich media and collaborative tools

Efficient collaborators know better than to over-rely on email when a video chat, phone call, or even a document-sharing application would provide fuller information and allow for greater nuance. They are quick to establish norms in their sphere of control that include things like: (1) consumable format norms (that is, length, bullet points, subject line to include action requested); (2) use of email only for informational purposes or when documenting/confirming agreements, not to resolve a conflict; (3) move to richer medium—phone or video call—if disagreement lasts more than two emails; (4) leverage back-channel DM use to promote greater connectivity among team members; or (5) use Slack-oriented technology to create real-time experience and emphasize the emoticons and informal nature of discourse to recreate benefits of face-to-face interaction.

Although such technologies can impose significant collaborative costs if they’re not used for the right purposes at the right time, they can yield tremendous benefits in enabling integration of expertise and capabilities by connecting people across geographic and organizational lines. More-efficient collaborators employ a broader range of collaborative tools and use them in the right way and at the right time to support collaborative work.

For example, efficient collaborators make excellent use of online spaces where teams can share information. These easily accessible repositories are great for documents such as project histories, lists of ongoing actions, financial data, surveys, participants’ bios, and anticipated results. They allow everyone to see interconnection points and find shared interests and other commonalities. In some cases, teams create online “book of work” documents that list team mission and objectives, key priorities, and who is working on what aspect. Participants can open the document to see how their and others’ work furthers the team’s mission and objectives.

In order to understand the behaviors that drive interaction norms, we need to look at issues that may at first seem unconnected: generating a sense of purpose, teaching others to use our time well, and creating trust.

Create Efficient Interaction Norms

Let’s go back to the story of Scott. You may recall that when things were at their worst, an average of 118 people in one unit came to him for information every day on matters large and small, a number that should have been much smaller. And 78 of these people said they couldn’t meet their goals unless they got more of his time. As we saw, this situation and the overload it caused stemmed from Scott’s own behaviors.

To his credit, Scott eventually came out of this phase of his life and grew into a true practitioner of essential collaboration, one of the people who helped me see what excellent collaboration really looks like. After he cleaned up his act and came to understand how to avoid overload, Scott was one of numerous people who showed me how they succeed not by pushing their ideas into situations or demanding help from people but rather by adhering to the following practices.

Draw people to collaborative work

There’s a lot to think about when drawing people into collaborative work. One important reason why essential collaborators do this is that they understand their own limitations; they recognize that there is much they don’t know. When he was overloaded, Scott, too, would sometimes recognize that he needed to tap others’ expertise. But in those instances, he had to scramble to find the right people. Then he went to them cold, asking for their help.

These experts inevitably felt some resentment. They would pitch in, for sure—Scott could use the power of his personality or the authority of his position to enlist them—but chances are he would get only grudging compliance. He might even meet outright resistance.

Things are different now. Scott routinely identifies areas where his knowledge is insufficient, thinks carefully about people who could support his work, and seeks help from them. Rather than demanding involvement, he draws people in. He understands that he needs to create the time to give others status and recognize the work they do.

I saw this new approach in action. I noticed that Scott adopted a practice of giving first—he made an effort to forge connections with people and provide resources without expecting anything immediate in return. For example, without getting too involved himself, he helped a Canadian unit find experts within the US part of the company who could help solve a persistent IT problem. These connections became valuable later when he began working on an initiative to expand the company’s Canadian presence. At one point, when he convened a working group to figure out how to manage payments for types of debit cards that were common in Canada but not in the United States, he started by asking basic questions: “Is this worth doing? Is it worth the time and effort?” Then he asked what aspects of the challenge people were most excited about. When group members expressed their views, he asked how he could best work with them. He singled out the quieter participants and made sure they were heard. Overall, it was a great example of envisioning and pursuing joint success.

Behaviors like these make the people around Scott feel excited about contributing time and effort. Today, if there is an emergency, Scott doesn’t have to go to people cold and beg for—or demand—their help. The benefits can be felt throughout Scott’s work. His employees and colleagues take inspired and motivated action on their own. They are more creative. They are less likely to constantly check in with him. They are less prone to delaying action until they get his approval.

I’ll have much more to say about this in chapters 6 and 7. But suffice to say that these are critical differentiators of high performers today.

Adapt your behavior and teach others how to consume your time

Scott became quick to identify inefficient interaction norms and change them. He noticed, for example, that certain people tended to engage him in more meetings, or longer meetings, than was really necessary. Others tended to flood him with excessive emails. He recognized that for years, much like Reina, he had tolerated and even encouraged this behavior, just as he had unknowingly encouraged certain extroverted, chatty people to take up too much of his time, turning work interactions into social occasions.

He also saw that his constant interjections had conditioned his direct reports to perform at less than their full potential. Not a lot less, maybe—they were getting their work done, for sure—but they weren’t coming through at the levels he knew they were capable of. Any limitations on performance, no matter how small, can add up quickly in today’s workplaces, where we’re all interdependent and many of us are working on multiple projects simultaneously. If people’s less-than-peak effort on one initiative is forcing you to spend 5 percent more time on it than you should, that’s bearable—you can live with that. But if the same thing is happening in all five of the initiatives you’re working on, you’re looking at a 25 percent impact on your time.

At first, Scott thought it would be impossible to change any of this. How could he make his interactions more efficient and raise his employees’ work level without offending people? He found that when he tactfully made changes and clarified his expectations, no one was offended. He let people know that it was important that his contributions to discussions and meetings be brief and concise; people could have his time, but the amount would have to be limited, so the discussions would have to be carefully targeted. In some cases, he taught his direct reports to begin every discussion by stating its purpose.

The result: he is far less frequently pulled into minutiae that distracts him, because the people around him know how to use his time.

Allocating Appropriate Time

Think about when someone requests your time and you say yes: chances are you automatically schedule a half hour or an hour, or some larger multiple of thirty-minute blocks. Calendaring software assumes that’s what you’ll do and reinforces this thinking. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Set appropriate time for collaborative tasks

The more-efficient collaborators described reducing their time burden by thoughtfully allocating time on the basis of the true needs of the interaction. To increase the efficiency of their interactions, they also employ hard stops; they inform the people they’re interacting with that the meeting will have to end at a certain time.

This is less about the specific tactics of calendaring than about the assumptions we make about allocating time. The top collaborators challenge their and others’ assumptions.

Try establishing a norm of offering 50 percent of the meeting time that others ask of you. If you succeed in that, you will be able to buy back an enormous amount of time—often with no repercussions. One senior leader in my research took this to the extreme and cut in half every recurring meeting in his 14,000-person group. He did it as a gift to his employees leading into the holiday season. He laughed and told me, “Out of 14,000 people, I did not hear a single complaint.”

Sometimes, though, longer can actually be better. In certain circumstances, such as when you are at the beginning of a project or are working with a distributed team in tackling a difficult or ambiguous task, consider doubling the meeting time—or halving the gap between meetings—to ensure that momentum is not lost. Sometimes it is more efficient to drive through to a solution in a two-hour meeting than to struggle to make things come together across a series of shorter meetings.

Developing Trust

The obscene numbers that we discovered in analyzing Scott when he was at his low point implied that his team had gotten into a rut of constantly checking with him. The team went to him almost obsessively, it seemed, to get his input or approval. This is common, and there are many reasons teams end up in this pattern. Sometimes teams get into checking routines because of a single past trauma.

Consider Jurgen. He was not a scary manager. He was a voluble, gregarious leader who enjoyed the company of his direct reports and often showed up at the nearby pub for after-hours drinks on Fridays. But everyone knew the story of what had happened to Karen, Anand, and Seth.

Just after the company had been acquired by a food-and-beverage giant, Jurgen was feeling particularly vulnerable under the new management. Karen, Anand, and Seth had been meeting regularly on their own to explore a new eco-friendly material for packaging frozen foods. Somehow a public radio station got wind of the project, and the trio (perhaps unwisely) gave interviews without Jurgen’s permission.

This might not have been such a big deal except that the parent conglomerate had recently been embroiled in a legal fight in Germany over a similar packaging material because of allegations that it posed a health risk to pregnant mothers. Someone in the conglomerate’s management heard the broadcast, and the irate CEO called Jurgen at home on a weekend.

From then on, Jurgen became more involved in the details of everyone’s work—especially Karen, Anand, and Seth’s. And over time he seemed to lose patience with them. They had been riding high, but after this incident they fell out of favor, getting noticeably less-desirable work. Karen and Anand quit. Seth stayed on, but he seemed to fade away.

Everyone liked and admired the trio; they had been among the most creative thinkers in the company. A few people kept in touch with Karen and Anand, so their post-resignation trials and tribulations became a running story in the workplace.

The effect on the dynamic between Jurgen and his team was noticeable. The lesson of Jurgen’s response to his bosses’ displeasure seemed to be: don’t act independently. Check with Jurgen on everything. Both Jurgen and his team were soon overwhelmed with churn. They were swamped with approval requests, FYI memos, and check-in meetings, causing collaboration overload for all.

This is an extreme example, but an invisible fence of fear can be created just as easily through small moments, such as when employees detect disappointment in a leader’s voice or body language, they are told in a meeting—even in a kind way—that they should have checked before taking action on some minor issue, or they are called out in a performance review for taking a trivial action that did not turn out well. Through these and other micro-moments, psychological safety slowly erodes, leading to tremendous inefficiency in collaborations.

This problem, at root, is a lack of trust. Jurgen’s team members assumed that their manager didn’t trust them, and for their part, they no longer trusted him to act reasonably or stand up for them.

Develop trust

You don’t want people around you to be passive or to avoid taking action, generating ideas, or moving ahead independently. Nor do you want to be overwhelmed by churn as people come to you to triple-check everything. You want them to take risks. Prudent risks, yes, but risks. That’s how you create a context of efficient collaboration.

Developing trust is never as easy as it sounds. Destroying trust is easy. It can be done in a single act, any day of the week, in public or in private. But building trust takes time and care. One misstep and you lose everything.

First, you must demonstrate—not just say—that you adhere to principles, such as the good of employees or the good of the company, that are larger than your own self-interest. In some cases, that might mean sticking your neck out for your employees, something Jurgen didn’t do for his trio of creative thinkers. In other cases, it might mean refraining from wielding your expertise as an instrument of status; it’s better to let others solve problems and discover mistakes in a way that creates ownership.

You must be authentic, because authenticity, sincerity, and believability foster trust. Yet being authentic doesn’t mean blurting out what you really feel about your direct reports, especially if they’ve let you down.

Consider how you react to bad news or setbacks. Most leaders know they’re not supposed to blow up, but often they don’t realize that even subtle reactions such as slumping the shoulders, putting on a sour expression, or asking passive-aggressive questions can be just as effective as tantrums in training people not to take risks. If you are feeling upset for personal reasons, don’t take it out on others, even in muted ways. Your employees watch your every move, are extremely perceptive, and rapidly transmit their impressions through the grapevine.

If you disagree with what people are doing, you must state your disagreement—agreeing with everyone and everything is no way to generate trust, because people understand that bosses must, at times, send stern messages. But make sure not to disagree in a way that could be seen as an attack on another person. Instead of saying, “That is a bad idea,” say, “Given where we are trying to go, here is an alternative.”

We have come a long way in the first half of this book. We have gone all the way around the left-hand side of the loop that I introduced in chapter 2 to see how altering our beliefs, structures, and behaviors can help free ourselves from overload.

By following the steps and Coaching Breaks in part 1, you can now buy back a significant chunk of your time. Earlier, I said that by transforming yourself into an essential collaborator, you can reclaim 18 percent to 24 percent of your time, or the equivalent of about one day per week. The way we discovered this figure is by comparing the most-efficient collaborators with people who were only average. We didn’t even look at the least-efficient; instead, we focused on how much time you could reclaim if you moved from average efficiency to the level of the most-efficient collaborators.

OK, so I’ve given you the tools to become more efficient and regain a significant amount of your time. But now what? That’s the question I will answer in part 2.


Behaviors to Avoid Overload

As in previous chapters, I’ve taken all the practices that were discussed in this chapter and worded them as “I” statements so you can visualize applying the solutions to your own behavior. Check the box for the one or two that you think could be most helpful, given your current situation. Then ask someone who knows you well to indicate what they think could be most helpful to you, with your current behaviors in mind.

COLLABORATION PRACTICES: My meetings are focused on desired outcomes, include only those who need to be involved, and are efficient in structure and process.

image You

image Someone who knows you well

Solutions you could adopt

Establish healthy norms for before, during, and after meetings. These include: set expectations for desired outcomes; distribute preliminary information so that meeting time is spent on the best use of participants’ expertise; employ appropriate structure, such as agenda and timeline, to meet clear objectives; send follow-up emails on commitments and next steps.

COLLABORATION PRACTICES: I write streamlined emails and encourage efficient norms of email use.

image You

image Someone who knows you well

Solutions you could adopt

Be more careful about format and organization of emails, use of email, and limiting disruptions. For example, establish norms for maximum length; efficiently clarify the “ask”; halt unnecessary cc’ing; avoid off-hours emailing; set reasonable norms on response time.

COLLABORATION PRACTICES: I use direct messaging to increase efficiency of established relationships.

image You

image Someone who knows you well

Solutions you could adopt

Use DM to spread and gather information quickly, conduct friendly interactions, and query people about their time constraints. But learn to ignore DM when in meetings or conversations so that you are present and not creating excessive collaborative demands.

COLLABORATION PRACTICES: I support virtual collaborations with rich media (for example, video and audio) and collaborative tools that enable colleagues to work on a single work product.

image You

image Someone who knows you well

Solutions you could adopt

Use videoconferencing and other rich technologies to brainstorm, integrate viewpoints, and ensure alignment. Employ tools that permit screen sharing or that enable participants to work together on a common document.

COLLABORATION PRACTICES: I draw people to collaborative work by giving status, envisioning joint success, diffusing ownership, and generating a sense of purpose and energy around an outcome.

image You

image Someone who knows you well

Solutions you could adopt

Co-create with influential stakeholders and others. Think about who will consume the output of your work, but also who could support your efforts. Seek to give first in interactions, to invoke a norm of reciprocity and trust.

COLLABORATION PRACTICES: I adapt my behavior and teach others how to consume my time rather than let inefficient norms develop and persist.

image You

image Someone who knows you well

Solutions you could adopt

Employ hard stops and help others understand how to make the best use of your limited bandwidth. Provide team members with resources and guidance, rather than setting yourself up as the person who knows all the answers and the “right” way of doing things. Coach people to be structured in how they approach you for help or input.

COLLABORATION PRACTICES: I allocate appropriate time for collaborative tasks rather than assume an hour or half hour is always needed.

image You

image Someone who knows you well

Solutions you could adopt

Challenge your assumptions about allocating time for interactions. A norm of offering 50 percent of the requested slot buys back an enormous amount of time. Don’t fill time unnecessarily.

COLLABORATION PRACTICES: I develop trust so that people do not feel an excessive need to seek input or approvals.

image You

image Someone who knows you well

Solutions you could adopt

Show that you adhere to principles larger than your self-interest; let others solve problems in ways that build their sense of ownership; hold yourself and others accountable for acting with discretion, for doing what you say you will do, for being vulnerable and taking risks with ideas, and for showing concern for others.

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