Collaboration is the rage in today's workplaces. The time we spend collaborating has bloated by more than 50 percent over the past two decades, according to research conducted through Babson College's Rob Cross' consortium, the Connected Commons. Workplaces are swarming with Post-It notes, teeming with whiteboards, and overwhelmed with collaborative technologies.

Alas, collaboration is a double-edged sword. Research conducted by Cross reveals that three to five percent of people in an organization account for 20 to 35 percent of the useful collaboration--yet typically as many as half of these people are not being recognized through traditional performance management systems.

Are you one of these essential but beleaguered, bitter, and burned-out people? Or are you part of the problem--a "gunk person" who heaps unnecessary load on weary colleagues, and on yourself too? Here are four habits of highly inefficient collaborators to help you decide.

1. Spewing out unnecessary, lengthy, and insensitive emails

Workers spend one-third of their work time reading and answering emails--30 percent of which is devoted to emails that aren't urgent or important.

Workers generate destructive overload when they include too many recipients--indiscriminate use of "Cc" is a common culprit. They also wreak havoc when they waste time perfecting long messages that others feel compelled to respond to (or elect to ignore).

IT company Atos compared email to organizational "pollution". It found that a mere 10 percent of the emails its employees received was useful. In response, CEO Thierry Breton pressed his people to reverse the trend, "just as organizations took measures to reduce environmental pollution after the industrial revolution". By implementing an enterprise-grade social network software, employees reclaimed 25 percent of their time and reported a 30 percent increase in customer satisfaction.

2. Running lousy meetings

Meetings are email's evil twin. When meetings are too long, include too many (and the wrong) people, and have unclear objectives, they cause engagement and productivity to plummet.  

To prevent meetings from morphing into soul-sucking events, Patty McCord, Netflix's former chief talent officer, asks two intertwined questions: Have we made any decisions today and, if so, how are we going to communicate them? "Patty's parting questions" reduce unnecessary confusion and frustration, and stop meetings from degenerating into hollow rituals where issues are never resolved.

3. Licking the cookie and other failures to delegate

Too many leaders believe that delegating work will undermine their power and prestige. Research conducted by Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao as part of their Friction Project has investigated how a failure to delegate can give rise to organizational friction. This becomes especially destructive when leaders "lick the cookie," or try to put their stamp on anything and everything their team does, similarly to how a child may lick a cookie so others won't eat it.

For instance, Vic Gundotra, former Senior VP of Google+, would allegedly "lick the cookie" by putting future Google+ features into internal presentations long before his teams built them. By "licking the cookie," Gundotra prevented other teams from incorporating features into their own products.

Leaders can save themselves and their colleagues headaches by focusing attention, modeling actions, and dispensing rewards that support rather undermine the greater good. Leaders should focus on promoting, rewarding, and celebrating "stars" who contribute to overall performance, rather than selfish credit hogs, cookie lickers, and backstabbers.

4. Using collaboration "efficiency" tools that wreck efficiency

Many workers use collaboration tools to burnish their reputations rather than to do essential work. They use these technologies to make their exchanges highly visible. They over-inform, bombard colleagues with rapid-fire questions, and contribute the lion's share to discussion threads in order to stand out. In doing so, they unduly pile collaborative overload on others.

43 percent of workers say they need to switch between too many apps just to get basic work done. Leaders shouldn't insist on using a collaboration tool before ensuring it's right for their people and the kind of work they do. Proper expectations and guidelines are critical.

Take Slack. According to the company, the average user is glued to the platform for about 2 hours and 20 minutes each weekday! Recognizing the inordinate time workers were spending on Slack, Buffer's marketing team launched "Slack-off Fridays ", forbidding team members from using Slack on Fridays. Buffer realized that Slack had fueled expectations of (usually unnecessary) immediate responses. The experiment taught team members to resist the impulse to use Slack to rapid-fire comments, questions, and thoughts--and to question whether something really needs to, or should, be shared on Slack. In many cases, there was a better asynchronous channel that wouldn't besiege the recipient with the expectation of an immediate response.

Many people don't realize that they are heaping unnecessary friction on their colleagues and customers. Be on the lookout for the habits described above and you'll help ensure that you're subtracting rather than adding unnecessary gunk. 

*Bob Sutton and Rob Cross contributed to this article.

Published on: Feb 1, 2019
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