Collaboration fatigue: Why saying yes means saying no

“Working for a nonprofit is exhausting” is a phrase I am sure you have heard before if you are in the sector. But does it have to be? No. 

There has always been an impulse in development work to coordinate efforts across geographies and fields of expertise. With the pandemic, the importance of collaboration has certainly increased to encourage efficient implementation on the ground. 

But is it possible that social value creators are tiring themselves out through a frantic exponential growth in their acceptance of collaborative engagements that do not necessarily lead to better organisational or development outcomes for their beneficiaries? The question is rhetorical.

The problem is that civil society has gone a bit collaboration mad and the instinct to want to make a difference inevitably leads to saying yes too often, which has the effect of saying no to everything else, including your wellbeing, professional development, organisational growth and the ability of teams in and across organisations to deliver outputs based on such collaborative efforts. If we cannot deliver, then why collaborate? 

The challenge is assuming reactive postures of always jumping in and taking on too many collaborative demands, individually and organisationally. The key is to target your engagements and not to stretch yourself across too many different stakeholders — employ a mental clearing house of priorities to immediately see whether an engagement is worth it. When collaborating, organisations should have a clear strategy and stick to objectives.

What we really want from collaborative engagements is to integrate diverse insights and perspectives and create opportunities for innovation. The importance of genuine collaboration was highlighted recently on 14 December 2021 with the Engaging Civil Society For Enhanced Collaboration With the United Nations in 2022 briefing. Collaboration is recognisably important.

But, in practice, emails and engagements are drifting earlier into morning, later into the night and deeper into the weekend, without time for succession beyond the initial contact. Building collaboration that is mutually beneficial and leads to real outputs needs graft time set aside to do the actual work, before coming together again to share progress. 

Rob Cross, who has studied the underlying networks of effective organisations and the collaborative practices of high performers for 20 years, argues in his new book, Beyond Collaboration Overload, that it is important that we invest in wellbeing, that collaboration is energising and effective, serving its aim to mobilise networks and teams. Effective collaborators are people who are governed by North Star aspirations, clarity of what is important to get out of collaboration and have the ability to say no. 

To work effectively across teams, you must try to avoid being the path of least resistance because we must understand we still live in a competitive world and motivation for many comes from the opportunity to enjoy sole praise for the accomplishment of a task; when roles and responsibilities are vague, you can expect to be disappointed by your team and partners. Sources of motivation are also important, clear lines of accountability and well-defined deliverables are a key component and hierarchy works in making engagement fruitful. Personal commitment to doing your work and holding others to the expectation that they will do theirs is hard at times, but to quote a line from the film The Godfather:  “It’s nothing personal […] it’s strictly business.”

Scheduling reflective time in your diary is also critical. This means you make time in your workday to digest new information that you can use in a meaningful way to do your job better. Try to also schedule reflective time at night to assess on a personal level what you did during the day that worked and where you can make improvements. Sharing knowledge is awesome and participatory practice is fun, but energy-intensive — tread cautiously. Take what comes out of collaborative time and make it work for what you need to get done to drive yourself forward and to push your performance level, setting discrete goals for how you envision working with others in a way that is innovative and includes team insights. High functioning individuals and effective organisations have courage and confidence in themselves to know and establish expectations, while setting purposeful paths for themselves.

When arranging and attending meetings, it is important to be fully prepared if you are to get the most out of collaborative opportunities. If you are a manager, make sure you outline an agenda, establish clear expectations, deadlines and hold the team to excellence. If you work at night, send emails with delay, because you do not want to contribute to encouraging an undisciplined culture, which leads to lost productivity during the daylight hours and poor work-life balance for employees. But, if an email is urgent, send it at whatever time; open lines of communication are more important to ensuring a collegial atmosphere. When working across organisations operate within standard working hours. 

When establishing time to mentor junior colleagues, remember to be conservative in your servant leadership because this takes time and it is better to make a solid investment than spread your time ineffectively across the organisation. When it comes to building collaborative muscle among organisations, see where institutional knowledge and training can be shared for mutual benefit. Do not be afraid to ask for resources and assistance, as that is half the battle won.

Above all, at a personal level be easy on yourself at the end of the day and try for a better tomorrow. Use the morning wisely, and perhaps set meetings for the afternoon when you have put in your graft time. Figure out what works for you. We cannot escape collaborations because we are social beings, but take care of you first. At an organisational and team level, lead by example and stick to your principles, encouraging others to adopt effective collaborative habits by living them yourself.

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Struan Robertson
Struan Robertson is in business development at Seriti Institute, a development facilitation agency

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