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Daniel McFarland: What Is the Secret to a Happy Collaboration?

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Daniel McFarland: What Is the Secret to a Happy Collaboration?

A Stanford sociologist examines why workers team up with the same people again and again.
William Hewlett, left, and David Packard (Photo by Joe McKendry)

At the core of most successful organizations are people who work well together. Happy collaborators are typically more productive and are less apt to look elsewhere for employment. But what are the circumstances that lead people to want to team up over and over again? Research by Stanford's Daniel McFarland suggests that the reasons people continue to collaborate with others in their professional networks are quite different from the motives that led them to begin those relationships in the first place.

Relationships, including professional partnerships, often begin because two (or more) individuals who work in the same place, see one another often, and have a lot in common. It's easy to relate to someone the same age who shares your background and values. Beyond that, some people choose to associate with others in hopes of boosting their status or paycheck.

But they often stay in these relationships due to "tie inertia," which is essentially a tendency to stay with what is known out of a sense of familiarity and commitment. This sense of obligation is strengthened if the people have invested a great deal of time and other resources in the partnership. It stays strong when partners have multiple types of association — they co-advise students and co-publish research, for example — because they know each other more deeply, and also because they have more resources to share. "To form and sustain these ties, pairs of colleagues must interact frequently to share knowledge," he writes. In short, McFarland says that people initiate relationships due to "opportunity and preference selection" but stay in them out of a sense of "obligation and complementary experience."

At the beginning of a relationship, being the same is terrific, but that only lasts so long.
Daniel McFarland, former associate professor (by courtesy) of organizational behavior

Colleagues remain in these unions because of positive experiences they've had together, regardless of who else may be available. Rather than risking the time and other commitments it takes to seek out new groups, co-workers tend to stay in useful teams they've already formed. This continuity is more likely, however, only when people have complementary — but not identical — expertise.

"At the beginning of a relationship, being the same is terrific, but that only lasts so long," says McFarland, who teaches organizational behavior at Stanford GSB. "If you are too similar, there's too much overlap" in capability, knowledge, and contacts, which can hamper creativity and breed turf issues. It also can render collaboration unnecessary, since partners can do essentially the same things.

That explains why, in the long run, teammates who realize they are too similar often end their relationship unless they can find or develop new points of complementarity. "The surviving ties are those with a degree of similarity so we can communicate but a degree of difference so we can plumb the relationship for additional value and skills one of us may not yet possess," McFarland says.

When a team is working well, this continuity is a good thing; however, the inertia can have consequences. "People tend to stick to the ties they have formed, for better or worse," he writes. "By implication this means that some individuals are locked out of fruitful collaborations, while others become less open to collaborations with attractive potential partners."

When McFarland started this research with co-author and former postdoctoral fellow Linus Dahlander, he recognized that while research about how people initiate ties filled scholarly journals, there were scant findings on which ties they chose to maintain and why.

This struck his interest, in part, because McFarland found himself stretched for time, with competing research projects and many potential collaborators. He had to deliberately narrow down his partnerships. "As a midcareer faculty member, you get tired of dating, so to speak," he says. "At some point, you have to say no to people. You can't carry 20 collaborations forever. People fatigue."

McFarland and Dahlander focused on their most immediate network: Stanford University professors. The researchers tracked newly hired, untenured faculty members over a 15-year period. They recorded which of their peers they repeatedly chose to co-publish research projects, co-write grant proposals and co-advise doctoral students.

The researchers' findings about the importance of shared positive experiences and complementarity can help businesses maximize the productivity of their workforce and minimize turnover, especially since more established teams tend to be more productive. Churn can be expensive for organizations. A 2012 study by the Center for American Progress think tank found that, for most pay levels and industries, businesses spend about one-fifth of an employee's annual salary to replace that worker.

To foster staff longevity, organizations can arrange for group members to switch roles with one another. Allowing colleagues to explore new sides of one another, can keep partnerships fresh "like a healthy marriage," McFarland says, noting that rotating leadership roles are frequently prescribed in classrooms so as to help students develop new skills.

Google, for example, encourages employees to leave their positions and take on "bungee" assignments for three months to one year in different areas of the company. Employees can acquire new skills and find out whether they like a new job (or are good at it) before committing to it. Most staffers return to their original jobs with new knowledge and experiences to share with their workmates, ideally fostering new energy into their collaborations, creativity within their original groups and job satisfaction for themselves.

In McFarland's study, the researchers recommend "adopting activities that look less like mixers and more like team-building exercises" for companies that want to build long-lasting teams. Cocktail parties encourage people to meet one another and expand their networks, but it takes retreats and team-building exercises to encourage trust, communication, and interdependence among group members. It also requires a willingness to rotate your expertise and roles in relationships, so that you can learn new sides to one another and engage in fresh experiences.

And what role does personality play in these professional matchups? McFarland's study tracked instrumental relationships centering on specific tasks, such as co-writing a research paper. It did not capture what he calls "the warm side of things" or personality and style. In the case of his collaboration with Dahlander, the study couldn't illustrate "that Linus is a kind and giving guy, or that I was willing to traipse across campus many times to engage in research conversations with colleagues that synchronize well and move at a fun clip."

Daniel McFarland is an associate professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education and by courtesy at Stanford GSB. Linus Dahlander is an associate professor at Germany's European School of Management.

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