in: Career, Career & Wealth, Podcast

• Last updated: February 21, 2022

Podcast #773: Get on Top of Collaboration Overload

There is seemingly more collaboration going on in the workplace than ever before. People are working and talking across teams, and within teams, using a wide array of communication channels. As a result, employees, managers, and CEOs alike can feel pulled in a ton of different directions, by a ton of different asks, and find their actual productivity shot to pieces as a result.

My guest figured there had to be a better way for folks to work together, and interviewed the most efficient collaborators to find out what they did differently to get back up to a quarter of their collaborative time. His name is Rob Cross, and he’s a professor of leadership, a business consultant, and the author of Collaboration Overload. Rob and I begin our conversation with a big picture overview of the organizational and individual factors that are driving the problem of collaboration overload. We then shift to talking about the concrete tactics he learned from efficient collaborators that can help others avoid getting pulled into every conversation and project. We discuss how to limit the productivity-sapping power of meetings by scheduling reflective time, and ways to put more buffer between you and those who ask you to collaborate, including creating a transparent clearinghouse of priorities. We then discuss how to reduce collaboration overload in communication, manage people’s expectations for response times, and identify the microstressors that may be contributing to your burnout.

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Now, there is seemingly more collaboration going on in the workplace than ever before. People are working and talking across teams and within teams, using a wide array of communication channels. As a result, employees, managers, and CEOs alike can feel pulled in a ton of different directions by a ton of different requests and find their actual productivity shot to pieces as a result. My guest figured there had to be a better way for folks to work together and interviewed the most efficient collaborators to find out what they did differently to get back up to a quarter of the collaborative time. His name is Rob Cross, he’s a professor of leadership, a business consultant, and the author of “Collaboration Overload.”

Rob and I begin our conversation with a big-picture overview of the organizational and individual factors that are driving the problem of collaboration overload. We then shift to talking about the concrete tactics he learned from efficient collaborators, like help others avoid getting pulled into every conversation and project. We discuss how to limit of productivity-zapping power of meetings by scheduling a reflective time and ways to put more buffer between you and those who ask you to collaborate, including creating a transparent clearinghouse of priorities. We then discuss how to reduce collaboration overload in communication, manage people’s expectations for response times, and to identify the microstructures that may be contributing to your burnout. After the show’s over, check out our show notes

Rob Cross, welcome to the show.

Rob Cross: Alright, thank you so much for having me here, Brett.

Brett McKay: You had a book out called, “Beyond collaboration overload: How to work smarter, get ahead and restore your well-being.” So you are a network scientist but you’ve spent a lot of time studying the effects of collaboration at work on, not only our productivity, but also our quality of life outside of work. How did that happen? How did a network scientist end up studying collaboration?

Rob Cross: Yeah, great question, and it started about 23, 24 years ago, actually. I was running a research group and we were focused on how do you help organizations better share knowledge and expertise. And of course, a lot of people are treating it as a database issue but what I got really interested in is nobody used the technologies that much. Most people, when they had problems or opportunities or decisions they needed to get done, they would reach out into their network to various others to get a sense of what information could help or things like that. And so we started mapping patterns of collaboration in large groups to understand how these groups were getting things done.

And then what we started to see over the course of the past really decade-and-a-half is all the restructurings that organizations are going through, right now, are putting more and more collaborative demands on employees. We’ve been through de-layerings, we’ve been through Agile work. We’ve adopted all sorts of these collaboration technologies, like Slack or email or video channels or things like that, that help us instantaneously connect. And they all sound great in isolation, they’re all appealing, that we wanna be one firm or we wanna be able to reach out and get to others instantaneously. But incrementally over about a 10 or 15 year period, we could see that the collaborative demands placed on people today were rising 50%, 60% in that timeframe and nobody was paying any attention to it. We have this big kind of invisible component of work that had really driven up and required people to be working earlier into the morning, deeper into the night. It was affecting quality-of-work life, yet nobody was really seeing it and thinking about how do you help people survive today, so that was really the starting point of it.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and not only were people weren’t seeing it, they were just encouraging more collaboration. It’s like, “Well, we gotta have an open office. We’re gonna flatten our hierarchy.”

Rob Cross: Completely.

Brett McKay: And it just made it worse. So when you…

Rob Cross: And then if you go into a place and you as a leader if you’re thinking about de-layering or open space or a new technology. If you look them in the eye and say, “Well, do you really want another email, meeting, or phone call in your life?” And the answer is never yes but it’s very quick to force all these things onto other people without really recognizing the effect of that, as you were saying.

Brett McKay: When you’re studying an organization, you’re looking for collaboration overload, are there signs that an organization or a leader might be suffering from too much collaboration?

Rob Cross: Yeah, so what we see… We use the network analytics to understand how many people, how frequently the amount of time that’s being consumed in collaborative work. And so of course, I’m all for the kind of collaboration that we all want, those 4, 6, 8, 10-person teams that are integrating, bringing diverse perspectives, and producing a new innovation. That’s what you’re trying to preserve time for. What we’re worried about is all the other stuff, the amount of time on the team collaborative spaces, the Slack, the IM, the emails that are drifting earlier into the morning, deeper into the night. And what we’ve seen in here that’s troubling are the signals that I tend to look for in leaders, is the degree to which their calendar is completely overloaded through the day and they’re finding their interactions drifting earlier into the morning, deeper into the night, deeper into the weekend, and they’re just solving the problem by trying to schedule or jam more meetings in rather than saying, “How do I collaborate differently?”

So as an example of that, pre-pandemic, people would come to me and they’d complain that, “Oh, my gosh. I have eight one-hour meetings and I can’t get anything done until the end of the day,” and then somebody through the pandemic, had the great idea that let’s jam shorter meetings in and so now, most people have 16 30-minute meetings, instead of 8 1-hour meetings, and it’s exhausting. We’re more intense in those 30 minutes, we’re switching across those meetings which is cognitively draining, and then we end the day with a to-do list based on 16 meetings, not eight. And it’s just no wonder we’ve seen the spike in collaboration through the pandemic go up five data hours. And again, people are working earlier and later each night just trying to keep up.

Brett McKay: So it sounds like collaboration, or too much collaboration, causes a decrease in productivity which is interesting because we think collaborating, we’ll be able to get more done. That’s why you do it, two heads are better than one but it sounds like the way that people typically collaborate is… It actually causes a decrease in what they get done.

Rob Cross: Right. When they fall into reactive postures and that’s, I think, one of the biggest challenges that I found out of this is that we could use the analytics to see that there were some people that were providing the greatest collaborative impact in their organizations and far more efficient than others, and they tended to be about 18% to 24% more efficient than their peers and so they were buying back almost a day a week of time and that’s who we really studied initially for the book to understand how they do it. And at the heart of it, one of the really core notions is that they’re not giving up control. I think one of the fantastic things about today is we have more ability to choose who we work with and what we’re doing than ever before in history. It’s when we give up the control of the situation and allow all the emails to flood in on us and feel like we have to answer them all or we become somebody else’s idea of fun and all the demands. That’s where we tend to get in trouble.

Brett McKay: Why does collaboration overload happen? What sort of decisions are leaders making or mindsets that leaders have that allow that to take place or take root in an organization, or in their own lives?

Rob Cross: What we can see is collaboration overload is driven really in two very different ways. One is as the collaborative intensity of work is risen, we have very little ability to understand the collaborative footprint of the asks that leaders are making of other people. So for a super simple example, task A and task B may look the same, but if task A requires you to coordinate with six people that are in the same geography and working for the same leader, that’s an entirely different effort than task B, if you’re required to work across two time zones with two groups that have misaligned incentives and two leaders that don’t like each other. That’s weeks of time in terms of the collaborative effort that’s required and yet we have no real way to see that anymore. People haven’t invested in understanding how we’re actually collaborating to get work done which is crazy to me. People are spending about 85% of their week in collaborative activities and yet we don’t have the ability to understand what we’re asking of people when we think about just work allocation, how we’re designing roles, how we’re taking layers out of the hierarchy, and so that’s got to be one thing that changes. And I think it’ll evolve. We can track meal expense receipts down to two decimal places today and I think these network analytics will come in in ways that start to help inform decisions on that basis.

But then the second thing that really surprised me as I went through all these interviews was the degree to which we are our own worst enemy in this game. I came in thinking gosh collaborative overload is external. It’s the emails, meetings, nasty clients, demanding bosses. Those are the things that are killing us all and it’s kind of out of our control and as I went through all the interviews, what I found is that we tend to be about 50% of the problem in the way that we tend to jump in. We all hold these kind of beliefs, or what I call triggers, that lead us to jump into situations sometimes when we shouldn’t. For some, it’s a servant-based mindset so that they see leadership and being a good colleague is helping others quickly, and that’s a great thing but if you do it in a certain way and you do too much of it, you get overrun today. You become the path of least resistance and everybody comes back to you and it becomes overwhelming or…

For me, the trigger is accomplishment. If I see a five-minute window, I’m gonna always try to jam 60 minutes of stuff in that and then ignore the two to three hours of coordination I have to do to get other people on board, to coordinate different contributions, and four, six weeks in, I’ll be grumbling about, “Why am I overloaded again?” And I’m the one that started it with that initial kinda jump in that five-minute window. And so a really important piece that we see in this is people have different triggers. For some, it’s a desire to help, for some it’s accomplishment, status, fear of what colleagues think, fear of missing out, inability to live with ambiguity.

There’s different triggers that lead people to jump in but one of the most important things is becoming aware of when you’re doing it to yourself and kinda guarding against. If it’s a desire to help, what I would hear in some of my interviews is people would say the life-changing moment for them came when they started to kind of have this rubric in their mind that’s saying yes means saying no. Every time I jump in with this well-intentioned desire to help, it’s taking me away from other things and that that really matters to be able to break the grip of overload.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I can see that. I’ve seen that happen in my own life. It’s like I just wanna be helpful. I wanna be the helpful guy.

Rob Cross: Yeah.

Brett McKay: And it comes from a good place but then you create a pattern where people just keep coming to you for things that they could probably solve on their own. They don’t need to come to you all the time.

Rob Cross: Yeah, it’s crazy. When we run the analytics, and I go back into organizations and I say, “Gosh, it’s this 7%, 8%, 9% of your population that’s absorbing 40% of the collaborative demands. They’re overwhelmed and that’s gonna hurt you from an innovation standpoint, a burnout standpoint, etcetera. The knee-jerk reaction everybody has is, “Oh, they’re controlling. They need to delegate more,” and that’s actually very rarely the case. People today get into these positions for really good, intents, a desire to help’s a great thing. But it’s in the excess that it causes problems and it’s really insidious in that if you’re fulfilling that desire to help, or me with accomplishment, it feels good right up until it doesn’t. You’re in the thick of things, you’re helping people in ways that you think are important, right up until you hit this threshold and your significant other says no more or you lose a key employee because you haven’t been able to focus on them as much so it’s a real kind of insidious game really today.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and the other trigger, too, is that fear of being seen as not a team player or not necessary. You go to the meetings so you’re just… Your presence is known, that you’re like, “Okay, I’m here. My job is important because I’m here,” and that might not be the case. You don’t need to be there, but you have this belief that you need to be there in order to show you still have value at the office.

Rob Cross: Right, right. And that’s hard, the culture of inclusion. And again, this is a little bit of what we were talking about earlier, is there’s not a single company out there that I’m bumping into that doesn’t say they wanna be one firm, or you’re kind of one enterprise and delivering the very best of that enterprise to the market, or are all these shifts towards Agile ways of working, and it all sounds good in theory, but it starts to… We create that belief, the, “Gosh, I’ve got to be involved in everything. I’ve gotta be there, I’ve gotta be present,” that people have to find ways to kinda separate from. I can’t tell you the number of people that I talked to through all these interviews that said, “You know, I just stopped going to a meetings,” and half the time nobody even noticed, and they didn’t hear anything about it. And only if they got two or three emails, did they come back to say, “Okay, here’s the way I can participate in this meeting, or possibly the person I need to send this meeting, for me to be able to manage today.” But that’s one of the real key things to be thinking about is how to fight that belief.

Brett McKay: Well, how do you do that? Any tips that you’ve seen that work? Those triggers can be really ingrained in you from a decade or two of work so how do you overcome that? Those [0:13:37.7] ____ model?

Rob Cross: Yeah, yeah. I think, for me, what I would see about… What I studied with Beyond Collaboration Overload, or what I call the “successful people,” so they were the high performers, but they were also scoring high on measures of life satisfaction, thriving, career happiness, things like that. The idea is were they successful and were they also sustainable and how they were doing it and one of the really core ideas I could see is they had far greater clarity on aspiration. I call them “north star aspirations,” but they were more grounded than a typical just high-level idea of, “Okay, I wanna be in this role in five years or in this neighborhood in eight years.” They were really precise and able to say, “Okay, here’s the capabilities I wanna be using in the next three to five years, the way that I wanna build analytical skills, market awareness, leadership capabilities.” They’re real precise on that, what it was that they wanted to be using or known for in their work, and then they were also really precise on what values do I wanna be experiencing. Is it mentoring and helping others? Is it creativity that I wanna build into my work more?

And with that clarity, then people were much better at structuring their worlds toward it. The more efficient collaborators tend to strategically calendar Friday night or Sunday night with a one -week and typically about a three-month interval in mind and they’re plotting, as they do that, interactions that kinda pull them in directions that they thrive in and start to build a reputation around and they do better over time. What I find with the people that struggle to say no, is that they don’t have those anchors in their mind. They don’t have clarity around what’s really important to me and so they get swept up in other people’s ideas of fun and on the margin, they give their time away. One thing at a very high level is just to be really clear on what path are you trying to chart and then have the courage to pass on some things and not get boiled up into everything.

And then there are also tactics. One of my favorite interviews was a very fiery young lady that said, “I have a crazy boss. He comes to me with all this ridiculous stuff and half the time he doesn’t even know what he’s asking, and I was just bringing it back into the team, and I was over leading the team because I was just saying, ‘yes’ constantly.” And so for her, what she started doing was this grid. She would create this little impact-to-effort grid where one axis was, okay here’s the impact of this ask you have of me, and another axis was here’s the effort it’s gonna take to get it done. And she’d plot this crazy leader’s ask on that grid and if it was low-impact, high-effort, they would talk about do they really need to do it or could they combine it with something else? And she said, number one, that helped stop some of the work that was coming in or the things that she felt she had to say yes to, the meetings, the work, and other things like that. But most importantly, she said within a couple of weeks, her crazy boss knew that he was gonna face the impact-to-effort grid whenever he came with an ask and so suddenly he more thoughtful about what am I actually… Gonna actually go and face the impact-to-effort grid on?

And so there’s all these little devices like that. When I say that people give up control of the situation, what I would see in this work is people that were really successful at it, they’d fought for the time on the margin, and they used all sorts of things like that to create the ability to say no in a situation or to restructure the work in a way that made it more doable.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.

And now back to the show. Okay, so big picture. It’s important to have clarity on what you call your “north star aspirations.” Be grounded and clear on what your big priorities are so you can set your schedule according to them and avoid getting pulled into collaborative work that just totally sucks up your bandwidth. But then there’s also concrete tactics that you can use to avoid collaboration overload and I wanna talk more about those. An area where people spend a lot of time collaborating, like we talked at the very beginning, is meetings. Meetings have long been a problem, they’re the bane of people’s existence. They’re a time suck and as you mentioned, since the pandemic started, the problem has just gotten worse. It’s worse than ever. What are some tactics for reducing the amount of time you have to spend in meetings and then also making sure meetings don’t totally sabotage your focus and your ability to work on important stuff?

Rob Cross: Yeah. One is to question, to have people post the objective or what the agenda is or specifically what your role is in it. I hear a lot of people make the decision that, “Okay, if I can’t see the specific need or how I’m contributing, I’m not gonna go.” Another is, that’s really important, and it’s not directly around the meetings, but one thing we know that the more successful people do is they block reflective time really well. Or really, to me, they manage to a rhythm of work that’s optimal to them. Why that matters is we know that… And everybody will say, “Yes, I block time in my calendar,” and we know, statistically, the ideal interval is typically about 90 minutes, 90 minutes to two hours, depending on which study you’re looking for but just space to be able to get work done from that onslaught of 16 30-minute meetings. And sometimes people even have to hide it, they hide it under other meetings if their calendar is open. But the reason that matters is we know that from the cognitive psychologist, that the act of just looking down to the text and back up can be as much as a 64-second recovery.

Mentally, you try to get yourself back on track with where you were, if the disruption that you have is so great that you lose your train of thought that what they call a schemer, right? You go back and forth on Slack channel enough so that you forgotten what you were just doing, for example, then that can be as much as a 20-23 minute recovery to get fully back up to speed. Now, we don’t experience it, we kinda tell ourselves a story that we’re just catching back up and getting our head where it was before, but you take any given day and how you’re allowing those disruptions to happen.

60 of the small ones and maybe two of the big ones. And again, it’s no wonder we’re working deeper into the night and earlier into the morning, so being intentional about blocking time, it seems like a small thing, but it’s a really big deal to buy back time, but also have the creative space in there, and I would hear people do it in really different ways, some people would say the first thing I do in the morning is email, and then I have a reflective time later, and that’s how I structure my day.

And the next person I talk to, if I suggested that, they would say, “Are you crazy? If I start with the email, I’ll never get off email.” And so for them, they would be to start with a reflective time and they would block email and third, maybe three, 30-minute intervals through the day, they’d communicate to others when they would expect to hear from them, but that structure, again, gave them the space and allowed them to work at a rhythm that kind of matched up with their own productivity, and that’s probably the biggest lever that almost anybody can pull is to really be thinking about how am I putting structure into the calendar that way.

Brett McKay: Right. So treat your own personal reflection time as a meeting. And then the other tactic too is reducing meetings, I like, just stop going to meetings and see what happens.

Rob Cross: Yeah, it’s amazing how much of life evolves fun, or when people apply this idea of, I’m gonna do email on 30-minute intervals three times a day, and they communicated to others. I can’t tell you the number of people that come back to me and said, “Wow, all I had to do was tell others when to expect from me, and suddenly I wasn’t getting bombarded and feeling the urgency and the stress of needing to answer immediately,” but we fall into these patterns, when we’re not putting structure into the situation where we’re just responding to everybody else, and that’s when people get over run and get in trouble.

Brett McKay: Yeah, benign neglect. Can go a long way.

Rob Cross: Right, right, right.

Brett McKay: So you talk about another thing too, you mentioned earlier, adding buffer, and I like the tactic that one lady used with the chart, so any time the boss came with an ask, she made him go through this chart and that was a way… Is a pretty slick way to add some buffer and cause the boss to reconsider his collaboration ask, any other tactics you found like that to add some buffer between you and other individuals asking for your collaboration?

Rob Cross: Yeah, and I’ll answer… I’ll give you two. One is a very similar kind of thing where the leaders, the people would agree to rate this next ask on a scale of one to 10, and not just treat the ask in isolation, but have a little slide rule on their phone that shows all the asks that have been made and they’re kind of moving things around, it was a really cool little app that they’d created so that there would be a visibility to, okay, here’s the competing asks, and then how do we place this one in the context of the others very, very quickly. And so that stops both sometimes the leaders from asking, but also it’s individuals from jumping in, because most of us wanna do good work and our tendency a lot of times it’s to jump without understanding that collaborative footprint that I was alluding to earlier. And that’s what gets us into a lot of trouble when we get into something that’s far bigger than we realized, because in the moment, we were trying to do that, so anything like that, that starts to create transparency with competing demands, so that somebody coming to you with an ask and say, “Okay, I’m not the only one, but there are six of these things, and I’d forgotten about three of them that I’d asked about earlier,” and you start moving away from…

What I would hear from a lot of people was saying that the day they figured out that the word no didn’t have to be binary, it didn’t have to be yes or no, but it could be, let me communicate to you what I have on my plate. How do we figure this out in the context of all that work and how much of it needs to get done, can we shift the timing, those conversations and suddenly start to happen more fluidly and people don’t feel pressured to take on too much.

The second thing is, and it’s a bigger problem today than I’ve ever seen before, it’s when you have too many different kinds of stakeholders coming to you with too many demands, and so that’s when I call it priority overload, that where these disparate stakeholders are coming in and saying, “My thing is important. My thing is important. My thing is important,” and they’re not recognizing the aggregate burden that they’re placing on people and it’s happening a tremendous amount in agile work, and so what I’d heard in different variants of this, but one that seemed to work really well is the people would just say they would schedule a meeting 30-60 minutes, either face-to-face or online, and they would have four stakeholders come in that are overloading the team, and they would say, “Okay, stakeholder one, here’s the five asks you have of me and put them in post-it notes or a flip card, if it’s virtual, underneath there and stakeholder two here’s what you’ve asked of us and stakeholder three, etcetera,” and then they would draw a line around, here’s the capacity of the team, right through the middle of those cards or post-it notes, and say, “How do we solve this?”

And so suddenly again, it’s putting the conversation back to the stakeholders to say, “Gosh, my need isn’t as important as I thought or actually, my need pairs up a stakeholder three’s needs and we can coordinate and actually get a lot more done with and take less effort. So that kind of idea of creating a clearing as is something that’s worked really well for a lot of people, just tactically to help buffer a little bit.

Brett McKay: So where a lot of people spin their wheels with collaboration overload is communication. Digital communication, specifically email, Slack, Instant Message, etcetera. Any tactics that you found high level performers use to structure their communication channels so they reduce the amount of collaboration overload?

Rob Cross: Yeah. So for me, what I see in this game is it’s not the technology, so they’re killing us, typically it’s the norms of use that we fall into, so real simple tactic with your team is to sit down and say, okay, what I would see with the more efficient collaborators is, most people would look at email, to your point and say, “Gosh, I can’t control all the emails, so I’m not even gonna try,” whereas the efficient collaborators would have a tendency to come in and say, “My team generates 40% of it, and I can control that and actually probably make their lives better too, if we just establish some ways that we’re using it.” So very simple activity is to take a blank piece of paper and put two lines down as you have three columns or do it on a virtual piece, if you’re doing this virtually, and in the first column, you list out all the modalities that you’re using to collaborate with the team, and it’s usually more than people think, it’s obviously meetings, video calls, phone, email, but then you start throwing in IM, Slack, the team collaborative space may be a gratitude application.

Most teams start to realize they have six or seven ways that they’re collaborating and just immediately. And so list them out, and then in the second column for each of those ways of modalities, say, “Here’s three things we wanna start doing,” so if it’s email, for example, we’re gonna start using bullets and we’re gonna state what we want in the subject line, and we’re not gonna try to write 10 paragraph emails and hide what we want in the night so the people are overwhelmed, but you just kind of agree on three or four norms of use on positively, what we wanna start doing. And then on the last column it’s three or four norms of use, so what do we wanna stop? So as an example for me it’s if you have to do email at 10 o’clock at night because that’s the only time you have, don’t send it then, send it on a delay the next morning, so you’re not starting this always on culture of 10:02 response, 10:05 et cetera. You’d be amazed how just kind of listing the ways you’re collaborating, then establishing three or four norms that you wanna follow for each, three or four that you wanna stop doing for each…

It takes no more than an hour team meeting, but it buys back a tremendous amount of time for people, not just the individual, but for the whole team, just by getting consistent on norms, if you will, around that, so that would be probably my highest leverage recommendation for people listening.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I like that. So the first one say what you’re not gonna do to say, you’re not gonna send emails past a certain amount of time, certain times at 10 o’clock or can even be earlier than that. What’s interesting, we talked about other guests who brought up research where companies have instituted, basically, they shut off email after work, so after 6:00 PM, and they end up be more productive than the companies who can email at all hours. If there’s that fear, I’m gonna be less productive. I can’t answer the email at 9 O’clock at night, it’s like, “Well, probably not, you’ll be just… Or even more productive.”

Rob Cross: Right, right. It’s an interesting question, and one of the other interesting things for me to see is people will call me up and say, “Gosh, we got our email volumes going down,” and because they’ve focused on the book or whatever, but then you’ll ask them a few questions and you’ll find that they’re killing people with Slack channels, they’ve kind of shifted the burden basically, and Slack is a great thing, I’m not picking on Slack or any of the IMs, they’re great things to connect instantaneously, but the switching costs that I was just talking about, where you’re constantly on your switching across that number of channels, that carries a cost too, and so to me, the question is always, does the benefit outweigh the cost? Are we kind of reflecting on this is in the right way versus just assuming collaboration is always good.

Brett McKay: Any insights there on how you can structure Slack communication so that it’s more effective?

Rob Cross: To me, it’s more around the usage. You know what I mean? The way people feel that they have to respond. How they respond and the timing of that, where I see places get in trouble with those kinds of technologies is when there’s an expectation of instantaneous response or other things like that. So to me, again, it more often than not comes back to the norms that have the greatest impact.

Brett McKay: Gotcha, a special norms or effective norms you’ve seen, so just basically, you just create the expectation if you put something on there on Slack, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get a response right away. So don’t expect that. Yeah, okay.

Rob Cross: Right. And it doesn’t create an expectation for others to feel like they have to respond immediately, that’s typically more of what I say.

Brett McKay: So let’s say you start doing this stuff. I imagine some people are gonna be put off by it. They’re like, Who… What’s Rob? Rob thinks he’s really cool, you can just not answer my email, how do you manage people’s expectations about that?

Rob Cross: It is just a game, ’cause I think this is where a lot of people have struggled in the past with time management ideas, right, is that they’re… Especially today in the hyper-connected world, it’s not just that I can make a decision that I’m gonna act in certain ways, because like you say, I start to upset other people, so I’m not responding in the right timeliness or at the right quality or level or things like that, but I’ve been amazed the number, and I have tons of stories with this, where people went out to their teams and just said, “Look, for me to be able to do what I need to do and to help us as a team. I need to do this idea of blocking email into 30-minute chunks.” And they communicate to their team. They set the notice on their email so that it indicated when they were gonna be responding to emails today, and people respected that. Once they know what and why you’re trying to work differently, they tend to kind of adapt to what you’re up to. Another great story for me is somebody, a super high performer that I bumped into that he sat down with his team and said, “Well, how much of my time do you need to be in these meetings and answering emails and responding to you and being helpful to you?” And he actually had the foresight to survey them and the team came back on average, it was like 81%, and we need 81% of your time internally with our team.

And he looked at it and he said, “There’s no way I can do what I need to do for this group,” in terms of managing the ecosystem in which is set to get the resources, the projects to get everything he had to do to create a sponsorship for the team. And he told them, he said, “I think the best I can do is 35% in a meeting.” And they all kind of then agreed and said, “You know what, you’re right, we hadn’t been thinking about all these other things you have to do, and here’s how we can consume your time differently.” consume, restructure our asks of you or time that you have. So to me, that’s kind of the approach is you do the best job to communicate what you’re up to and why and what you can contribute much you can’t contribute, and that tends to work out in the long run.

Brett McKay: So manage expectations, communicating expectations is one way to mitigate the burnout of collaboration overload, you also talk about shielding yourself from other micro-stressors, what are micro-stressors and how can you get a handle on them?

Rob Cross: So the micro-stress idea is one that we’ve been really leaning into over the last couple of years, and for me, as I went through these interviews, it just became apparent to me that people are struggling with a form of stress that we’re not really conventionally thinking about, so it’s not the real nasty boss or client, those can exist for sure, but it’s the fact that we’re getting hit with all these small stressful moments through the day, so we get an email from a colleague and we can sense we’re out of alignment with what we need to get done on a project. And you’re wondering, “Well, how am I gonna pull this back together, how am I gonna find the time even to coordinate?” And we get another email that shows us that we need to coach a team member for the second or third time, and you start wondering about, well, how am I gonna do that and preserve their engagement and not worry about them leaving or you get a text from a child where it’s something that they’re just ranting about for five minutes and they get over five minutes later and you worry about it for three hours, but it’s this interconnected world that we live in where we get hit with these things, all of them seem easy in a small moment, things we just work through, but we’re getting hit with 20, 25 or 30 through the day, and we do them exhausted and we can’t quite put our finger on what happened anymore.

And it’s not just bad news, it’s not just kind of the news feeds we see and being primarily negative, it’s magnified by the fact that most of these people we care about. So if you get one of these things from somebody you don’t like, it carries a big effect, but if you get one of these things from somebody you do like and you’re worried about them, it carries a big effect. So what we focus on in the book is this grid that just has people go through 12 of these things that help us to understand where these stressors, how have they become a bigger deal than I realized ’cause I’m fighting through day-to-day, and I haven’t really thought about which one of these are more systemic and things I should be addressing, and then where are they coming from, isolating out, is it things that are driven by colleagues, by a boss or other things, and we find that handling those well, people tend to be able to usually isolate three or four places that these micro-stresses are coming from, that they can adjust the interaction, they either reframe how they’re working with those people, they communicate and reset expectations on how to collaborate, etcetera. And then a second approach, and it is also focused on how do you just rise above it and not get too far down into the minutiae.

Brett McKay: Rob, this has been a great conversation, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Rob Cross: Yeah, great, thank you. One initial place would be to look at my website, it’s and it’s got not just the book, but a whole suite of resources that we’ve built through the commons and the consortium that I work on with other people. The second place I’d recommend is looking at a site called the Connected commons, and that’s going to a group of about 150 organizations that sponsor different forms of research in this area, but it really is a wonderful community of organizations helping each other out and kind of talking about how they’re applying these ideas in different ways.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Rob Cross, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Rob Cross: Yeah, awesome, thank you, Brett.

Brett McKay: My guest today is Rob Cross, he’s the author of the book Beyond Collaboration Overload, it’s available on and book stores everywhere, you can find more information about his work at his website,, also check in our show notes at where you can find links to resources, we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast, make sure to check out our website at, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher premium. Head over to, sign up, use code manliness at check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher App on Android iOS and you can start enjoying ad free episodes of The AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you could take one minute to go us a review on Apple podcast or Stitcher. It helps a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you would think will get something out of it. As always thank you for the continued support and until next time, it’s Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to the podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.


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