Lost in the Crowd

Impacts and Solutions for Bad Synergy

Among the most misunderstood words in corporate jargon today is the concept of “workplace synergy”. When judiciously used, synergies can dramatically improve efficiency and productivity. However, when misjudged, the result can be catastrophic – for both the employee as an individual, and the company.

A business acquaintance recently mentioned to me, that her entire company – worldwide – had participated in a full day of seminars put on by the US-based corporate headquarters. Although she agreed that there was probably some valuable information in these seminar sessions, she felt the loss of a whole working day probably wasn’t justified by the results. Everyone who has worked in a mid to large size company has likely stood in her shoes: frustrated and stressed by a lost workday in the name of promoting that most ethereal of corporate buzzwords: synergy.

Workplace Synergy in the 21st Century

The word synergy itself comes from the Greek synergia meaning “working together” 1. “Workplace synergy” often refers to the sharing of knowledge or resources and eliminating inefficiencies within one or more teams. In many companies this takes the form of exercises (retreats, seminars, meetings etc.) promoting unit cohesion within a single team and cooperation across two or more teams.

Eliminate inefficiency, promote shared use of resources and “go further with less” – at first glance, this seems a no-brainer. Although synergy might sound like a science, it’s not necessarily predictable, measurable or replicable. Poorly conceived plans with vague methodology and intangible benefits have the hidden potential to be a kind of corporate napalm.

While many factors go into the success or failure of a workplace synergy initiative, much of the blame for failure can be attributed to managers’ failure to really understand where and what type of synergy is appropriate, where it should not be pursued, or in many cases even what it is. Yet managers forge ahead, dismissing the concerns of naysayers as “inertia” due to deeply held misconceptions and bias 2.

Logistical vs Management Synergies

Workplace synergy can be broken down into two primary focal points within a company: logistical synergy and management synergy.

Logistical synergies often come with clear and specific goals. Logistical synergies can be about internal company development or external growth, where a company looks for synergy from a merger or acquisition. Internal initiatives might consider purchasing power, centralizing the advertising budget and coordinated marketing. External initiatives revolving around mergers and acquisitions are often about “revenue synergy”, such as new opportunities to cross-sell to existing customers, channel optimization and brand extension 3.

Management synergy, in contrast, can be thought of as a synonym for “teamwork” and the pursuit of the elimination of barriers to greater collaboration and esprit de corps. Empowering employees, promoting trust, removing barriers to communication and establishing unit cohesion are all goals of management synergy 4. Seminars, teambuilding exercises, company retreats and corporate propaganda are typical ways that managers attempt to promote this.

Because management synergies are more easily summarized, there is a tendency by managers to confuse concrete logistical synergies with more vague management synergies, taking the view that “any synergy is better than none”. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

“I Don’t Really Know What It is, I Just Know It's Good for the Company”

High-level managers are often seduced by the word synergy itself. It sounds ethereal, intelligent, and is often encountered by management in trade publications and pitches from management consultants. Speakers at executive roundtables may give presentations on their company’s synergy initiatives. Accordingly, managers see synergy as a desirable within their organizations even if they may not know exactly where or when to implement it. This is what management consultants Michael Goold and Andrew Campbell refer to as “synergy bias” 2. This dogged pursuit of synergy at all costs often distracts executives from planning to reach a clear and measurable objective.

Papa Doesn’t Always Know Best

There is a tendency by upper management to fall victim to what Goold and Campbell refer to as “parenting bias” 2, where upper management assumes that “unit managers, overly focused on their own businesses and overly protective of their own authority, disregard or undervalue opportunities to collaborate with each other” and conclude that top-down involvement is needed to spur-on synergy 2.

Frequently, however, there are good reasons why lower-level managers have not pursued synergy on their own, and high-level managers are often too far removed to see the potential issues clearly. Instead, high-level managers resort to “sloganization” with ill-defined or misguided goals. To quote one famous corporate trainer: “vague goals produce vague results” and nobody is satisfied 5.

Synergy Without Stress

Nebulous workplace synergy initiatives that manifest themselves in a constant stream of meetings, standups, retreats, planning sessions, seminars and webinars are also caustic to employee wellbeing. In today's global information economy, the workplace tempo beats ever faster, and many employees are already stressed and overworked. A compilation of workplace stress surveys by the United States National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) suggests between 25% and 40% of American workers experience a high level of stress in the workplace 6. The UK charity Mind found that 19% of employees called in sick to work due to stress (most cited other reasons for doing so) and a quarter of all employees reported considering quitting their company due to stress 7. A study conducted by researchers at Stanford University found that workplace stress kills 120,000 workers every year 8.

Losing a workday (or more) to a corporate buzzword or yet another trendy, vague “management initiative” while the day-to-day work piles up in your inbox runs the risk of exacerbating this problem and encouraging disengagement.

Is Your Orchestra Drowning Out the Singer?

Overly simplistic attempts at workplace synergy can also erode what little remains of ‘trust in the individual’ in today’s corporate world. Following the reductive and tired logic that a unit is the sum of its equal and identical parts is to ignore the individual talents and strengths team members bring to the table. This can lead to feelings of frustration by employees – in many cases the best performers. High-performance individual employees forced to participate in collaborative settings may be ostracized if they become a perceived threat to their coworkers. A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that: “...cooperative contexts proved socially disadvantageous for high performers” 9. The same study found that “even stars can flounder without supportive peer relationships” 9 and a Gallup study found that employers lose between USD 483 and 600 billion due to employee disengagement, or “about a third of the disengaged worker's salary” 10.

Participation and Collegiality

While poorly implemented workplace synergy exercises such as worldwide seminars, or mountaintop matchmaking have the potential to impede productivity and frustrate employees, it remains true that properly implemented strategies can (and do) lead to greater efficiency and happier employees.

Employees forced to work at home by lockdowns, stay-at-home orders and closed offices in the era of COVID-19 often feel alienated from their colleagues. Optional teambuilding activities provide a good alternative for those who want to reconnect with their colleagues when meeting in person is not an option. My employer held an optional after-hours Christmas Trivia contest via Zoom for those employees who wanted to reconnect with their colleagues in a socially distanced but fun manner over the holidays, while allowing those employees who wanted more time away from work the flexibility to do so. This approach accommodated both preferences, and many chose to participate voluntarily.

Looking Down the Line

Senior managers looking for cross-team synergies need look no further than down their own chain of command. Low- or mid-level managers will (given sufficient autonomy) often implement small-scale synergies independently. This is what upper management should seek out and consider upscaling if appropriate. If a top-down approach – after much consideration – is determined to be necessary, then the initiative should be piloted on a small scale first, so that the sought benefits can be measured and potential problems resolved. By empowering mid-level managers who have greater experience in their area, companies can avoid the pitfalls of strategies that ultimately cause harm. These may be obvious to the mid-level manager but not to upper management – and may even be counterintuitive. Empowering mid-level managers also reassures them that their ‘on the ground’ insights are valued and it will encourage them to seek out other beneficial synergies.

A Wiser, More Skeptical Approach to Workplace Synergy

Managers should approach any proposal to implement a workplace synergy initiative with a healthy dose of skepticism. Implemented poorly, the potential downsides to both the employee and the firm far outweigh taking no action at all. Upper management should not be the driving force behind a synergy initiative but rather empower mid-level managers to pursue synergy independently. Employers should consider whether the potential loss of employee individualism is justified by concrete and defined goals. Most of all, employers must remember that their employees are far more than “human capital” and seek to preserve the dignity of the individual. Their employees – and their bottom line – will thank them for it.

Picture of Andrew Nordin

Andrew Nordin

Andrew Nordin is a writer, freelance journalist, and IT systems engineer. When not writing fiction he writes about information technology, politics and social issues. He has an A.B. from Ripon College in Politics and Government and a commercial helicopter pilots license.

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