Inside the mind of a collabohater

Understanding the collabohater

The Earl of Grantham. Now there’s a guy who glorified self-sufficiency. Luckily for him, Matthew Crawley came along as an unexpectedly assertive collaborator, provided some much-needed perspective, and Downton Abbey was saved for posterity (tragically mother- or father-less as they may be).

Back in the gentry-free real world, we all feel like being the office Earl from time to time. Collaboration doesn’t always suit our mood of the moment, and sometimes it takes a while to appreciate the logic behind it. Occasionally, it might feel good to go it alone, forego that team creative session, decline the invitation to train underlings, or skip learning the latest version of the Intranet. But, for the most part, most of us perk along, reasonably agreeable to the collaborative life. Why?

Most people accept that “collaboration is an almost universally good thing for a company,” says Art Markman, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Habits of Leadership. Without it, Markman says, “information stops flowing freely and communities break down. You wind up duplicating people trying to solve the same problem.”

Collabohaters: from introverts to narcissists

But there are some who don’t seem to understand the value of being a team player. The long-timer who hoards her files like they’re Gollum’s Precious. The crabby loner who throws tiny eye daggers if someone dares call upon him in a meeting. The too-cool-for-school dude who scoffs at management’s lame attempts to bring the factory workers together.

As a group, we call them collabohaters: scourge of the modern office, thorn in the side of managers everywhere. But don’t just dismiss them, because it’s probably best for all involved if you try to understand why they are the way they are.

There are many explanations for why a person might be averse to collaborating. Some relate directly to personality, but others are more about the personality-workplace interaction.

From a personality standpoint, Markman says some people—like introverts—just aren’t cut from a collaborative cloth. “Introverts don’t want attention and don’t generate a lot of energy from interactions with other people.” As a result, “they don’t enjoy or find the collaboration process helpful, and it doesn’t fit into their natural workflow.”

Getting the true introvert to collaborate is really an effort, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable to a company. Same goes for the narcissist, another personality type that is collaboration-averse, but for very different reasons than the introvert.

“Narcissists can draw tremendous energy from evaluations they get from other people, and can be collaborative in certain circumstances,” says Markman. Namely, when they’re going to get credit for something. Not surprisingly, however, they “may be reluctant to collaborate when they won’t be individually recognized.”

It’s not me, it’s you (or is it?)

Of course, personalities of all types have to mingle in any workplace, but if it’s a company that touts collaboration, leadership would do well to look inward before pointing the finger at certain non-conformists for failing to play well with others.

“You have to consider the interaction between personality type and environment,” says Markman. “To what degree is the organization overtly promoting collaboration, but rewarding different behavior?”

For example, if a company says they want a collaborative workforce, but only rewards one person within a group that works well together, there may be a problem.

The fundamental attribution error

In a nutshell, the fundamental attribution error is an oldie but goodie psychological concept that says when you evaluate someone else’s behavior, you assume it’s a reflection of their personality. But when you evaluate your own behavior, you often credit situational factors. Markman says this problematic tendency can slip into a business culture as well.

“When a manager asks why a group isn’t collaborating, they may be prone to ask what personality characteristics are holding them back, but discount the idea that they may inadvertently be creating a situation that keeps people from collaborating.”

The reality is that not everyone is going to embrace collaboration. You still have to work with them, so next time I’ll provide tips for working with the Lord Grantham in your professional life. Here’s hoping he’s not also your father-in-law.

Post by Jill Coody Smits

Jill Coody Smits is an Austin-based freelance writer and proponent of research-backed communication. Interested in psychology, health, fitness, and human rights. Wife, mother, traveler, reader, dog-lover, unaccomplished athlete.