feet on fire
PHOTO: dan carlson

Does your business constantly break up with enterprise collaboration apps? Do you feel like every two to three years, IT or communications gets fed up with the latest and greatest chat tool or internal social network because it’s not driving enough productivity, community or other ideal-state value? Is there always something newer, younger and better-looking waiting in the wings?

“It’s not you, it’s me.” We’ve all heard (or joked about) this ever-popular cliché absorbing fault after a breakup. This dynamic rings true for our relationships with collaboration tools: we embrace them for a time, then the early excitement leads to eventual boredom and abandonment.

So I’d like to make it official and say, “Collaboration apps: it’s not you, it’s us.” We’re using you and abusing you, blaming you for the shortcomings of our own behaviors. You’re a scapegoat and an easy target, something tangible upon which we can place blame for our own inability to lead, manage and work together with people productively.

Let’s face it: most of our collaboration tools are largely woven from the same DNA strands. Post, link, comment, like, chat, repeat. The common denominator in their failure to drive more collaboration sits squarely on the shoulders of people — in particular, managers and leaders who display five bad behaviors — the potholes, if you will, on our path to productivity gains. I’ve been intimately involved in the evolving world of modern employee collaboration apps since the early 2000s. After years of watching the predictable cycle of companies deploying, embracing and then abandoning their tools, it’s time to call out our bad behavior for what it is: the real reason these tools continue to “fail” inside our organizations.

So, what are these bad behaviors? They all stem from managers who use these tools in self-serving ways that destroy culture and abuse the power of open collaboration — which in turn reduces productivity.

Bad Behavior 1: Digital Babysitting 

Particularly in fast-moving cultures, some managers are creating egregious expectations around the speed at which they require employees to respond to messages posted in a certain group, channel or direct message thread. Recently, an employee shared that his manager requires he and his team to click “like” within two minutes of getting a notification about a post, creating the equivalent of a read-receipt for the manager. Managers imposing this type of fire-drill, big-brother mentality on their employees ruins productivity as people scramble to please the Overlord of Liking rather than stay the course on their work (which is likely not happening in the collaboration app).

Related Article: Why Are Business Leaders Still So Bad at Collaborating?

Bad Behavior 2: Collaboration C.Y.A.

Another pet peeve employees shared about their managers: tossing a document or list of to-dos into the collaboration app, assuming everyone will read it on the manager’s imagined schedule. This is the opposite of the first bad behavior. Instead of ensuring something is seen, the manager eschews responsibility for rallying teams around work next steps. “I posted it into the network, you didn’t see it?” is a poor method of delegating responsibility. Pushing content into a platform that’s likely moving at the speed of light isn't an effective swap for ensuring a team has all the information it needs to be productive.

Bad Behavior 3: Shady Social Soapboxing

There’s a cadre of managers who refuse to use enterprise social or collaboration platforms for day to day work, but regularly hop in to post an edict or official finding to the entire organization. These managers have found a company-wide pedestal upon which they can reach everybody and share some bit of information that oftentimes isn’t … totally true. Teams frequently complain to us about how individuals or managers complete their work in a vacuum, ignoring the inputs of others, and then gratuitously post some official finding in a channel for everyone to consume. This behavior undermines the work of everyday employees, and it often catches people off guard, forcing them to backtrack and manage expectations. Knowing that employees aren’t likely to call someone out publicly in an open, all-company channel, bad actors will abuse the privilege of mass communications to further their own agenda.

Related Article: 7 Employee Collaboration Lessons We Learned by Cutting Out the Middleman

Bad Behavior 4: Platform Obsession

In the past two years especially, we have seen countless leaders starry-eyed over a new digital employee platform that’s supposed to revolutionize the way that people work, and that promises total cultural transformation. Leaders buy into the vendor’s sales pitch about moving all communications into the platform, and killing all emails in favor of the platform, and integrating every business process into the platform, all for the sake of … platform adoption. 

Why are leaders letting tech vendors dictate business strategy by urging everything productive to happen inside their own platform? It’s simple — the vendor wants more adoption of their product. But this isn’t in the best interest of the company using the tool. Buying into the vendor hype about platform perfection kills productivity, forcing workflow change onto employees and playing into the hands of technology vendors who want to meet their numbers. It’s amazing we still see many customer leaders and managers blindly following vendor guidance for adoption, all while dismantling the flows of work developed by in the trenches workers.

Bad Behavior 5: Over-Reliance on Digital Discussions

Last weekend, I was at my son’s soccer game talking to several fellow parents who happen to work for a well-known movie production studio. They started up a discussion about how overly-reliant some leaders have become on internal social tools, assuming that online discussions can and should replace face to face contact. 

It seems to be an easy and efficient choice for a leader or manager to replace meetings with ESN conversations under the guise of improving productivity (less time in meetings = more time to work!). But the opposite rings true: teams who don’t benefit from face to face communication — as in the case of the movie studio employees — don’t think real collaboration is happening. The lack of verbal and visual cues, and the contextual void that arises when everything is simply written down, erodes any real collaborative work. Digital communication is no replacement for real life relationships, and in certain industries, some types of work just can’t be done in quick messages back and forth.

Related Article: Why Your Company Should Invest in Face-to-Face Interactions

How to Fix the Collaboration Potholes

How can teams avoid these productivity potholes caused by managers and leaders who may not fully understand the impact of their actions? It’s up to employees to lead the charge, bringing forth a rationale and collective expectations to supervisors. Ironically, most of the challenges created by inappropriate or uninformed usage of an internal collaboration tool stem from poor communication. Bringing unforeseen issues to the surface early on in the adoption journey should help everyone course-correct.

Important remedies and preventative approaches include:

  • Set norms for your team when sharing content that needs review and revision. Agree on an internal service-level agreement (SLA), or, how long it will take to respond when posting to a collaboration platform. Determine how you’ll notify each other of important information, whether it’s thorough @mentions or other mechanisms. Try the process on for size and see if it is manageable.
  • Agree to share milestones — not just finished products — inside the platform. Be open to honest feedback when you do. This will reduce the likelihood of posting content that’s inaccurate, given that others are invited to share feedback along the way.
  • Train managers and leaders on how the platform works. Oftentimes, we find infrequent usage of said tools dictates managers' and leaders' lackluster performance inside. Ensuring a leader knows what their actions and content look like to an employee will help them manage their participation and understand expectations.
  • Maintain face-to-face connections. Even if your team decides to go digital, maintain some sort of personal vocal and visual connection. These interactions strengthen relationships and help support digital interactions that require context to be read accurately.