Collaboration is a fundamental part of modern working life, and it’s rare to see a job advert now that doesn’t require collaborative capabilities in candidates.
With most organizations continuing to be hierarchical in nature however, the question raises its head over who we are most likely to collaborate, and therefore share our knowledge, with. In other words, are we more likely to help those above or below us in the chain of command?
That was the question posed by a recent study, and the analysis revealed that we may be looking at it from the wrong perspective, and instead that the distance in your status is the key factor in who we collaborate with.
Who We Collaborate With
“A lot of attention has been focused on the direction of the relationship—which employee is above or below the other in the hierarchy and how that affects their work together. But status distance may be more important in some circumstances than whether your colleague is above or below you,” the authors say.
The general theory was that when employees are relatively close to us in terms of their status, they pose a threat to our own status, and therefore we are less likely to collaborate with them for fear they could leapfrog us.
The problem with this is that when we’re collaborating with those that are far apart from us in terms of status, it can often require a lot more time and effort, which can then have a knock-on impact on the rest of our performance.
The researchers conducted two studies, both of which came to the same conclusion. The ‘sweetspot’ for collaboration was when two parties had a moderate degree of separation between their status.
A Collaborative Sweet Spot
The authors are at pains to point out that while this creates the appearance that we don’t tend to collaborate much, that isn’t actually the case, providing the conditions are right.
“We found that people are generally willing to lend a hand. It is not a story of withholding assistance. It is more about who are you most likely to go out of your way to help,” they say.
In terms of practical implications, the authors suggest it could be useful in feeding into things such as on-boarding programs. For instance, you might look to avoid pairing up a new recruit with someone who is also relatively new as they may be too busy competing for status to work well together.
Instead, we may wish to partner up that new recruit with someone who is reasonably successful internally but not at the top of the tree. The study suggests they would be most likely to help that new person bed in successfully.
Whilst so many organizations are attempt to do away with status and hierarchy entirely, this study reminds us of its important and often rather subtle influence.
“Managers have to consider how status distance plays a role in how well their corporate hierarchies work,” they conclude.