Why Collaboration Doesn’t Always Pay Off for Women

by Jennifer Miller on January 21, 2016

in Personal Effectiveness

business woman collaboratingNearly a decade ago, management consultancy McKinsey published a highly regarded white paper revealing that women outperformed men in five of nine key leadership behaviors. Three of those behaviors—people development, inspiration and participative decision making—have ties to collaboration. This research, among others, has formed the underpinnings of a narrative that gives a competitive career advantage to female leaders in the 21st century.

Yet for all of their collaboration chops, women often don’t get the credit they deserve. Several studies cited in this New York Times article point to a frustrating fact: women’s contributions, which are often behind-the-scenes, aren’t as frequently recognized as those of their male colleagues. This lack of visibility leads to less frequent promotions and other beneficial career opportunities.

Could it be that “too much of a good thing” has finally caught up to the many women who are natural collaborators?

The answer to that question hinges on understanding the different types of collaboration at work. In the Harvard Business Review article Collaborative Overload authors Rob Cross, Reb Rebele, and Adam Grant distinguish between three different types of “collaborative resources” people use at work. The first two resources—informational and social—can be shared quickly. For example, when someone shares information via email, say, to introduce one person to another, that’s an example of a social resource.  It’s the third resource—personal—that is the real time suck. Personal resources require someone to invest her time and energy in helping another person, such as mentoring a less-experienced colleague. While admirable and highly rewarding, this type of collaboration takes the largest amount of time and effort.

Expending personal resources is often a hidden activity, and it has unintended consequences. When a less tenured worker reaches out to a more seasoned colleague for mentoring, those meetings often go unnoticed. Those in the position to make promotion decisions often are unaware of the value the unsung mentoring heroes provide to the organization. The authors of the Harvard Business Review article used network analysis to uncover the strongest collaborators in their clients’ organizations. According to the HBR authors, the leaders of those organizations “are typically surprised by at least half of the names on [the list of top collaborators].”

Are you a natural collaborator who enjoys the interaction, but feels it’s not as productive as you’d like? Here are four ideas to consider:

  1. Read the book Getting Ahead: Three Steps to Take Your Career to the Next Level  by Joel Garfinkle. The book contains excellent examples of increasing one’s visibility. Here is the book review I wrote.
  2. Avoid over-delivering. “Under-promise and over-deliver” is a great customer service mantra. But it might get you in over your head when it comes to collaboration. You might find that a simple email answer will suffice rather than poring over volumes of information to send someone.
  3. Learn how to streamline your “personal resources” collaboration. Oftentimes, people will ask for your help (“hey, can we go to lunch so I can pick your brain?”) in the only way they know how—to connect with you personally. There’s nothing wrong with having lunch with people, unless it’s getting in the way of you accomplishing your other goals. Think about how you can more efficiently use your personal resources. For example, instead of taking one person to lunch, organize a gathering of 3 – 4 people who have similar interests.
  4. Think of yourself as a relationship broker. If someone asks for assistance, and you are too busy (or you’re not really an expert in the area) offer to connect the requester to someone who can assist. This does two things: it shortens your To-Do list and it also helps facilitate the building of a business relationship beyond you.

Collaboration is a vital business skill. Yet there is “too much of a good thing” if your collaborative efforts leave you feeling invisible or exhausted. Use these four ideas to tweak how you work in partnership with others. This slight change in direction will help you feel more energized and ready to help in new and interesting ways.


Image credit: Copyright : iofoto


“Why Collaboration Doesn’t Always Pay Off for Women” first appeared on the blog The People Equation.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Jennifer Miller January 21, 2016 at 9:42 am


Ha! A typo, yes. I’ve fixed it.

I think you’re looking at this from a different perspective than my intent. I agree that giving without expectation of getting anything in return is, at times, a healthy perspective. Yet there is a law of diminishing returns on being a “giver.” When a person (regardless of gender) gives to the point of depletion, then it’s unhealthy.

I’m also working with the hypothesis that women need to be aware of a “double bind” they face. The workplace studies cited in the New York Times article hyperlinked in this post highlighted an interesting phenomenon – when a man steps up to “give”, he is highly praised. When a woman offers that same level of assistance, she doesn’t receive as much (or at times, any) praise. It’s expected of women (“they’re givers, what’s the big deal?”) and it’s revered in men. That’s the dual bind that professional women face – how to honor their natural nurturing abilities yet get credit they deserve?

Which of course, goes back to your point about not desiring “credit”, just give for the act of giving. I wish the world were that altruistic! But research shows that it’s not enough to just “do a good job” for a career advancement; someone needs to notice. And people don’t always get “noticed” for their contributions. I think shining a light on this phenomenon without demonizing either gender is the best way to address it and move past it.

Thanks for your contribution! And I know your intent is to further dialog, so I don’t discount your input.

Jennifer Miller January 21, 2016 at 11:55 am


Great to see you here! I’ve always experienced you as an excellent example of a “giver.” It’s helpful to read that even you struggle with finding the balance. Always a journey, right?

Jennifer Miller January 22, 2016 at 4:18 pm


Agree completely – “collaboration, contributing and giving, can be its own reward.” And I always appreciate your contribution!


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