If you listen to management pundits, "collaboration" is all the rage. While the term is a bit fuzzy, what's usually meant by "collaboration" is 1) plenty of ad-hoc meetings and 2) open-plan offices that increase the likelihood that such meetings take place.
In previous columns, I've pointed out that open-plan offices, with all their interruptions, distractions, and noise pollution, are productivity sinkholes. I've also pointed out that collaboration tends to penalize the competent who end up doing most of the work.
A recent study published in Applied Psychology has now confirmed that a collaborative work environment can make top performers--the innovators and hard-workers--feel miserable and socially isolated.
The problem is that rather than seeing a top performer as a role models, mediocre employees tend to see them as threats, either to their own position in the company or to their own feelings of self-worth.
Rather than improving their own performance, mediocre employees socially isolate top performers, spread nasty rumors about them, and either sabotage, or attempt to steal credit for, the top performers' work. As the study put it: "Cooperative contexts proved socially disadvantageous for high performers."
This social isolation creates special difficulties for introverted employees who work in open-plan offices. While some extroverts seem to draw energy from a chaotic environment, introverts find such environments draining.
Sometimes the only way that introverts can get their work completed is to work from home, creating even more potential social isolation. Indeed, top performers who work from home are natural and easy target for workplace gossip and backbiting.
Unless checked, this tendency can result in an exodus of top talent. As a recent Inc.com column pointed out: "The No. 1 reason high performers leave organizations in which they are otherwise happy is because of the tolerance of mediocrity."
This is not to say that teamwork is a bad thing, per se. Indeed, most complex projects require a team to successfully complete. For teams to be effective, though, they need leaders who can swiftly squelch any attempt to isolate or denigrate a top performer.
In other words, your teams may need hierarchical leadership more than they need additional collaboration opportunities. Similarly, your company may need more private spaces than "open" areas that encourage more social interaction.