4 reasons your team is not collaborating

Jack can paint a house in 5 days, and Richard can paint the same house in 7 days. Working together, how long will it take them to finish the job?

A simple problem, right? In your experience, does it happen like that?

How many times have you worked in a team that actually behaved like the one in the math problem. The answer in real life will probably shock you.

While reason tells us more people collaborating to do the same job, should be better, we know from experience that bad collaboration is even worse than no collaboration and sometimes can be fatal.

We all know the benefits of collaboration. We also know from experience that the costs of bad collaboration are high.

As leaders it is our job to make sure effective collaboration takes place so that our teams and projects can be successful.

But, what is the difference between good and bad collaboration?

Answer: the barriers.

The four barriers to collaboration.

The barriers that impede collaboration from happening are what differentiates good collaboration from bad collaboration.

All of these barriers must be lowered for effective collaboration to take place.

In particular the are four barriers to collaboration, each with their own common root causes, and every one of them requires different solutions.

There is no magic formula to deal with them yet, however, by understanding these barriers you will become a better leader and team member, because they will show you where to look, to make sure you and your teams develop great collaboration.

Let’s see what these barriers are and where they come from.

The hoarding barrier: people are unwilling to provide help.

You know you have a hoarding problem when people in your organization are not willing to provide help to others.

Here are some the reasons studies have shown to be the root causes.

Fear: of losing power.

“Knowledge is power” some say, implying that the more you know about something in the organization and the less others know, the more powerful you become.

So why share the knowledge and become “redundant”?

If people believe that by sharing their knowledge they will become less powerful and valuable to the organization, they will be inclined to hoard it.

Competition: with colleagues and units.

Competition inside the organization undermines people’s willingness to collaborate.

If people perceive a competitive relation with one another, whether it is teams, departments or branches, they will be reluctant to collaborate, specially if it means helping the competition.

Being too busy: no time to help others.

As people are pressured to perform, they feel that they don’t have time to help others.

Oftentimes reasonable requests for help are seen as burdens and impediments that put them behind with their own work.

This puts people in a position of trade-off: to help others and get less of their own work done, or not to help them and get their own work done, missing out on opportunities to collaborate effectively and create greater wealth for themselves and the company.

Narrow incentives: rewards for own goals.

When people get rewarded for how well they do in their jobs, they tend to pay attention only to their jobs.

There is a large number of companies that use these kinds of rewards systems, effectively creating silos in the organization at all levels.

Not invented here barrier: people are unwilling to reach out to others.

How many times have you seen people solving a problem that was already solved, either by a coworker, in another team, or across areas of the company?

What a waste of good time reinventing the wheel. Yet in most cases it would have been solved by just reaching out for the solution.

Why does it happen? Here is why.

Insular culture: communication happens mainly inside the group.

People who work together can develop an insular culture as they spend time with each other only and not with others. This restricts the entry for new viewpoints and helps reinforce their own beliefs, which may be flawed.

Status gap: don’t want to cross status lines.

If people think they have a “higher status” than others, they will not reach to collaborate with those below and vice versa. Status can be anything, knowledge wealth, rank, etc.

The attitudes you can often see are: high-status people not wanting to sully their image of themselves, and low-status people not wanting to let high-status people make them regret their circumstances.

Due to the “choosing the right pond” phenomena both attitudes become barriers for collaboration.

Self-reliance: you should fix your own problems.

When the unchallenged assumption of “You should fix your own problems” settles in an organizational culture, people tend to resist reaching out for input.

It is not that people feel they are better than others, but instead, the belief that people have to solve problems on their own instead of asking for help gets in the way.

Fear: I don’t want to reveal problems or weaknesses.

In some organizations reaching out and saying “We are not doing great in this and we need help” can be interpreted as failure.

People sometimes fear exposing their weaknesses to others, specially to experts.

This often happens because by asking input people expose their vulnerability, which may lead to judgment, and therefore they may decide not to reach out at all.

They may go as far as to contact someone they trust even if it’s not the most knowledgeable person. Fear of revealing shortcomings becomes a barrier to collaboration.

The search barrier: people are not able to find what they are looking for.

How often have you tried to find some information you know is available and couldn’t.

Even when that information could make your life a lot easier: a previous presentation, that technical know-how, that marketing information, that old code. When people spend too much time looking for the knowledge they need you know you have found a search barrier.

Do any of these ring a bell?

Company size: we are too big.

Big companies, especially, have this problem.  The bigger the company, the worse it gets, because of more units, more departments, more teams, more places to search in.

Physical distance: distance makes search difficult.

Companies that are spread across cities, countries or continents have bigger search problems than those who are not.

There is research that shows for instance that the communication between two engineers is a direct function of the number of meters between their cubicles in the building. Interesting enough when the cubicles where 25 or more meters apart, communication dropped to almost nothing.

Something similar happens in a biggers scale when it comes to business units.

People prefer to interact with others who are close by.

The greater the distance, the less they communicate.

Information overload: too much information.

Communication alone is not enough. Sometimes you just can have too much of a good thing.

The more information you have, the greater the signal to noise ratio and probability of missing out on the important bits.

In many organizations information systems, including knowledge management systems, increase this noise and therefore make it harder to find the right type of knowledge or person.

Poverty of social networks: lack of links undermines the search.

If you are familiar with the 6 degrees of separation you know how connected the world is.

Yet that two strangers can find a connection, doesn’t necessarily means that we are always a few steps away from the information we need.

When you can’t find the right links in the organization, that becomes a problem.

The transfer barrier: people are not able to work with people they don’t know well.

There is no use in finding the knowledge if you can’t share it. Most of the time these are the factors that get in the way.

Tacit knowledge: is hard to transfer.

This kind of knowledge just makes transfer hard.

Tacit knowledge refers to information that is hard to articulate orally, in writing, code, manuals or other form. Explicit knowledge, on the other hand, can easily be articulated.

For example a formula like E = mc^2 is a form of explicit knowledge.

An intuition or a guide on how to negotiate effectively with a client, are harder to transfer because of the nature of the knowledge: experiential, gut feeling, etc.

It is easier to collaborate when people deal with straightforward, well documented, technical knowledge or clean and reliable market data.

It is much harder to collaborate when dealing with novel and poorly understood technologies, ambiguous market data or intuitions about where the market is moving.

No common framework: we don’t know how to work together

When people don’t know each other, they don’t have common frame from where to collaborate.

This means, they don’t really have an understanding about each other’s working habits, their ways of doing things, a liking for each other or appreciation for each other’s moods.

To give an example, have you ever had that friend or colleague tell you about someone else: “He is a nice guy, once you get to know him.” If you have, then you know what I mean.

This connections may as well be the difference between average and exceptional performance.

It is the missing ingredient to most collaboration efforts.

Weak ties: no strong relations to ease transfer.

People find it hard to transfer knowledge when they don’t know each other well (a weak tie).

They need strong ties, relationships where people talk often a have a close working associations.

When you have weak ties, people don’t know how to work together.

Some examples could be: they may not share the same terminology and ways of phrasing problems or don’t know how to communicate subtle but important points, or even what information may be most valuable to the other person.


If some of these barriers and their underlying causes sounded familiar, you are not alone.

A huge number of companies today struggle with this same barriers daily.

The organizations that get ahead are the ones that understand them and do something about them. Now, you can be one of them.

Collaboration is not something that “just happens”, it is something you can nurture and grow in your organization. It is a skill and you can learn. Just understanding the contexts and research behind it, is an immediate competitive advantage.

So, next time you are at work and Richard and Jack are painting a house together, you will have the tools to make sure you know what the real answer will be.

Note: The answer to the problem is 2 11/12 days. 🙂

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