How Dangerous is it When Employees Don’t Collaborate?

– “canary in a coal mine” test

Co-authored by Evan Mitchell, Co-founder Digital Culture Specialists HOW&Y

Emotional Intelligence is experiencing a revival in interest across business journals, including this one. Paradoxically, at a time when the evidence is showing it’s in steady decline. Meaning, of course, that the soft skills that underpin EI – by which it is typically monitored and measured – are on the slide.

Few would see this development as anything but negative, and lots of reasons are being advanced to account for it.

The Washington Post, quoting Stanford neuroscientist Jamil Zaki, puts it down to sociological factors, “humans increasingly live in cities and live alone. We see more people than ever but know fewer of them… The result is our interactions with each other are often thinned out, anonymous and tribal — barren soil for empathy.” Six Seconds, an organization that monitors EI levels globally, blames the strains of modern living. “The EQ competency for harnessing and using emotions productively has dropped over 9%. This decline makes sense in a context of rising levels of stress, increased emotional volatility, and decreased resiliency.” Psychology Today takes us back to parenting and loose standards there. “The trouble begins when interacting with technology starts to take priority over engaging in meaningful communication. As tech dependence increases, kids move through the world in a narcissistic bubble, divorced from their own thoughts and feelings, and the thoughts and feelings of others.” Consulting Psychology Journal seeks an answer in sleep habits, announcing “leaders who reported poor quality and quantity of sleep were rated significantly lower on interpersonal effectiveness after controlling for gender and perceived work/life stress.”

Clearly the reasons can be many and varied. But will getting to the bottom of these, reverse the downward trend of EI within organizations? Not if the proposed reasons are as extensive as the ones above.

Our research suggests another cause, one that straddles all the others – Digital Culture. When social media swallowed social life, the consequences quickly extended to the workplace. Relationships in the work environment became subject to the same competitive (verging on cutthroat) dynamics that drive social media platforms – FOMO, envy, resentment, schadenfreude … Once these feelings become habitual in social interactions it’s difficult to isolate them. After all, interactions with friends and interactions with work colleagues have similar working parts. The end results are sharply increased levels of competition and conflict in the workplace, with poorer understanding of how to address and resolve these. In effect a social media led shift away from a collaborative to a non-collaborative default mindset.

Unfortunately, these developments are occurring at a time when hiring managers and talent specialists are extolling the soft skills of EI as a success predictor, more important than IQ as a recruitment measure. 92% of talent professionals agree that candidates with strong soft skills are increasingly important …and 89% feel that “bad hires” typically have poor soft skills.      (LinkedIn Global Talent Trends 2019.) While according to HBR: “Businesses have never done as much hiring as they do today. They’ve never spent as much money doing it. And they’ve never done a worse job of it.” (Harvard Business Review 2019).

Rather than seeking causes for the decline in EI, which are bound to be broad and not easily converted to practical solutions, organizations need to be looking harder at its implications.

And here’s where the problem takes a turn for the worse. A key reason why recruiters and internal decision makers are warming more to EI as a selection aid, lies in the explosion in the use of teams within organizations. According to Gallup’s 2017 “State of the American Workplace” report, organizations are increasingly shifting from traditional hierarchical models to matrixed environments where “employees work across multiple teams and with team members who may report to different managers.” The speed and extent of this shift has been startling. Gallup again, “84% of employees are matrixed to some extent.” And this situation extends across all types of positions and industries.

When employees collaborate, they work 15% faster on average; 73% to do better work; 60% are innovative; and 56% are more satisfied. Businesses with a collaborative strategy are twice as likely to outgrow their competitors. (Deloitte Access Economics 2014).

But what if they don’t collaborate?

If we put all these factors together – EI in steady decline, recruiters demanding more of it, and organizational teams, who rely on it, exploding in numbers and importance – it throws up the issue of which particular aspect of EI is most immediately crucial to team effectiveness? Clearly, an understanding of team disputes and the willingness to collaborate in resolving them. The absence of these capabilities within employees is escalating – so too the absence of important related soft skills such as adaptability, communication and creativity. This, according to publications as diverse as WSJ, HBR, Forbes, LinkedIn, Chicago Tribune, The Chronicle of Advanced Education.

The combination of poor rates of collaboration and poor understanding of dispute handling/negotiation fundamentals, means that disputes are mishandled, left to fester, or kicked upstairs. All highly damaging to any organization, in a range of ways – resulting in poorer decisions and the conflict unremoved. But before rushing to find solutions to something that will vary with circumstances, organizations first need to assess the extent of the problem for them, and where it lies. Understanding where problems are prevalent is essential to removing them.

HOW&Y began exploring this issue when the evidence began emerging of difficulties with dispute resolution in organizations, arising from digital culture. Out of this focus eventually came an instrument, Conflict Collaboration, that predicts two important characteristics:

  • tendency towards collaboration vs non-collaboration,
  • and an understanding of what’s important in resolving disputes.

These two attitudes/capabilities underpin effective team membership and quality management generally.

It’s hard to imagine a better predictor of supervisory or team excellence than a combination of both.

In association with BizCatalyst 360°, HOW&Y is providing a free, totally anonymous, short trial of this new digital instrument. It takes 5 minutes to complete and provides participants with instant, personal scores across the key measures. Aside from being immediately valuable, these scores can later be compared with broad benchmark results to be published in a follow-up BizCatalyst 360° article.

The findings to date indicate that Conflict Collaboration has strong discriminatory power, and that the gaps in these competencies are as widespread as research findings suggest.


You’ll find the experience interesting, and your results a personally insightful guide.



Brian Mitchell
Brian Mitchell
Brian Mitchell and Evan Mitchell write extensively on psychological themes, with scores of published articles on three continents. Brian has a clinical Ph.D. and a significant period as a therapist. Evan has Honors degrees in Psychology and English Literature, and also extensive practical experience. They have two published books. The well-reviewed hardcover The Psychology of Wine: truth and beauty by the glass ( ) – Praeger US (and now in eBook edition) explored the aesthetics of wine and art and their psychological possibilities. This led to the storyline and structure of their upcoming literary thriller The Last Cave, an action narrative of suspense and surprise in the mode of Terry Hayes’ I am Pilgrim. Prior to writing full-time, the pair conducted a successful US consulting operation specializing in negotiation effectiveness. Subsequently extended to generational studies on decision making tendencies by Gens Y and Z in the consumer world and politics.They can be reached through [email protected]

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